SOMA, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkish police put the mining town of Soma on virtual lockdown on Saturday, setting up checkpoints and detaining dozens of people to enforce a ban on protests as rescue efforts following the country’s worst industrial disaster ended.
The last two bodies of workers thought still to have been left in the mine were carried out four days after a fire sent deadly carbon monoxide through it. That brought the death toll to 301, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said.
Hundreds of riot police patrolled the streets while others checked identity cards at three checkpoints on the approach road to Soma, a Reuters witness said. The local governor banned protests in response to clashes a day earlier between police and several thousand demonstrators.
Eight lawyers from the Contemporary Jurists Association, including its leader, were handcuffed and detained during the lockdown on suspicion that they had gone to the town to take part in more protests, the private Dogan news agency reported.
A total of 36 people were arrested and taken to a sports center in the town where they chanted: “the pressure cannot intimidate us”, the agency said. The number of detentions could not immediately be confirmed.
Tuesday’s disaster has triggered protests across Turkey, aimed at mine owners accused of ignoring safety for profit, and at Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government, seen as too close to industry bosses and insensitive in its response.
Erdogan has presided over a decade of rapid economic growth
but worker safety standards have failed to keep pace, leaving Turkey with one of the world’s worst industrial accident records. The plant manager denied any negligence at the mine which was inspected by state officials every six months.
Demonstrators clashed with police in the western port city of Izmir overnight, some setting up makeshift barricades and throwing stones and fireworks aimed at the police, Hurriyet newspaper reported. Some 40 people were detained.
There were also protests in Istanbul. Some residents in the city banged pots and pans from their windows, an act which was a feature of last summer’s nationwide anti-government unrest.
The police intervention in Soma could add to public anger towards Erdogan. He has 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.
There was wide media coverage of footage apparently showing Erdogan slapping a man as locals jeered his entourage when he visited Soma this week. The man, Taner Kurucan, said Erdogan had slapped him and told Kanal D TV he was then beaten by the prime minister’s bodyguards.
His adviser Yalcin Akdogan accused “gang members” of provoking Erdogan’s team as he went to meet mourning families. Anger was intensified by a photograph of an Erdogan aide kicking a protester held down by police special forces.
A group of students at the Istanbul Technical University occupied the mining faculty on Friday evening in protest at links between the university and the company which operates the mine - Soma Holding, the private Dogan news agency reported.
They said they would continue their protest until various demands were met, including a guarantee that the university’s links with the company were cut and the resignation of an academic there who said those who die from carbon monoxide poisoning “died sweetly”. He has apologized for his comment.
A university official said it had ended its ties with the owners of Soma Holding, meeting one of the students demands, Dogan reported.
The mining company managers held a fractious news conference on Friday where they said 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 2 km under the surface.
Erdogan’s opponents blame the government for privatizing leases at previously state-controlled mines, turning them over to politically connected businessmen who they say may have skimped on safety to maximize profit.
Questioned on links between Soma Holding executives and Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, a mine executive confirmed his wife was a local AK Party politician. Company chairman Alp Gurkan said he had never met the prime minister before this week.
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.
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Alison Williams