* Thousands try to protest in town hit by disaster
* Mine operator says exact cause of fire unclear
* 292 confirmed dead, around 10 remain trapped
* Company chairman says has no links to Erdogan
* Ruling party says mine inspected 11 times
(Adds energy minister statement, updates toll)
By Ece Toksabay
SOMA, Turkey, May 16 Riot police fired tear gas
and water cannon to disperse several thousand protesters on
Friday in a Turkish mining town still grieving the death of some
300 workers in the nation's worst ever industrial disaster.
Anger has swept Turkey as the extent of the disaster became
clear, with protests aimed at mine owners accused of ignoring
safety for profit, and at Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's
government, seen as too cosy with industry tycoons and
insensitive in its reaction to the tragedy.
"Stop spraying us with water! Go spray the mine! Maybe you
can finally put the fire out!" shouted one man among the crowd,
which had been trying to march towards a statue in the town
centre honouring miners when police blocked the route and
sprayed from armoured trucks.
The confirmed death toll in the disaster reached 292 as
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said eight more bodies were found
in the mine on Friday evening. Some 10 more people were believed
still trapped and unlikely to be alive, three days after fire
sent deadly carbon monoxide coursing through the mine.
Turkey has experienced a decade of rapid economic growth
under Erdogan, but worker safety standards have failed to keep
pace, leaving it with one of the world's worst industrial
"No coal can warm the hearts of children whose fathers died
in the mine," read one hand-written sign in the crowd of mine
workers and residents.
The police intervention in the mourning town could add to
public anger towards Erdogan. He survived mass demonstrations
and a corruption probe into his government over the past year to
remain Turkey's dominant politician, but now risks alienating
conservative, working-class voters that form his party's base.
Footage emerged of him apparently slapping a man as
residents jeered and jostled his entourage when he visited Soma
this week. The man, Taner Kuruca, said Erdogan had indeed
slapped him and told Kanal D TV he was then beaten by the prime
AK Party spokesman Huseyin Celik said there was no visual
evidence of Erdogan striking anyone, while his adviser Yalcin
Akdogan, writing in the Star newspaper, accused "gang members"
of provoking the prime minister's team as he went to meet
Police have clashed with protesters in Turkey's three
biggest cities Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir in recent days. Anger
was intensified by a photograph of an Erdogan aide kicking a
protester held down by police special forces.
"PUTTING MAKE-UP ON THE MINE"
Officials from the mine held a tense news conference, giving
their most detailed account so far of what had happened. An
unexplained build-up of heat was thought to have led part of the
mine to collapse, fanning a blaze which spread rapidly more than
two kilometres below the surface, the mine's general manager
Ramazan Dogru told a news conference.
"It was an unbelievable accident in a place where there have
been very few accidents in 30 years," Soma Holding Chairman Alp
Gurkan said. "A mine with top level miners, accepted as being
the most trustworthy and organised."
Opponents of Erdogan blame the government for privatising
leases at previously state-controlled mines, turning them over
to politically-connected businessmen who they say may have
skimped on safety to maximise profit.
Questioned on the relationship between Soma Holding
executives and Erdogan's ruling AK Party, mine boss Dogru
confirmed his wife was a local AK Party politician. Company
chairman Gurkan said he had never met the prime minister before
The AK Party said the formerly state-run mine at Soma, 480
km (300 miles) southwest of Istanbul, had been inspected 11
times over the past five years. It denied any suggestion of
loopholes in mining safety regulations.
But some mine workers questioned the inspection procedure.
"The inspections were carried out with a week's notice from
Ankara and we were instructed to get ready," said one miner in
Soma who gave his name as Ramazan, reluctant to identify himself
further for fear of retribution by his employer.
"It was like putting make-up on the mine."
Thousands gathered after noon prayers on Thursday for mass
funerals at Soma's main cemetery, where more than a hundred
tightly packed graves have been newly dug. Efforts continued to
retrieve those still trapped.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said a team of inspectors and
prosecutors had entered parts of the mine which were safely
accessible to begin an investigation.
"GLOWING COAL FALLING"
Plant manager Akin Celik said there was no question of
negligence on the part of the company. Gurkan was more cautious,
saying he would wait for an inquiry led by the Labour Ministry.
"If there is neglect within the operations, a mistake, a
shortcoming, I'll follow up legally to ensure those responsible
are punished," he said, adding a foundation would probably be
established to pay compensation to the families of the dead.
Initial reports blamed a fault at an electrical sub-station,
but Dogru said the fire had started when a coal seam grew hot.
"The heated-up area collapsed with pieces of glowing coal
falling, causing the fire to quickly spread. It has nothing to
do with the sub-station," he said.
Celik, the plant manager, said intense smoke had then
blocked the miners' way out, with visibility dropping to zero.
He pointed to an escape route on a diagram which he said the
trapped miners had been unable to reach.
He estimated that efforts to pump clean air into the mine
had helped to save around 100 workers. The company said 122
miners had been hospitalised and a further 363 had either
escaped on their own or were helped to safety.
(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Daren Butler Seda Sezer
and Gulsen Solaker; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by
Philippa Fletcher and Peter Graff)