SOMA, Turkey (AP) — A Turkish mining company defended its safety record Friday and senior Turkish officials denied allegations of lax government oversight four days after at least 284 people died in a coal mine explosion and fire.
Eighteen miners still remain missing, the country's energy minister said, tamping down earlier fears that more than 100 victims were still in the mine.
Turkey's worst mining disaster has set off a raft of protests and public outrage at allegedly poor safety conditions at Turkish coal mines, widespread corruption and what some perceived as government indifference. "It's not an accident, it's murder," read one banner held by workers who marched through the streets of Istanbul on Thursday.
The public anger has stirred up new hostility toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, which had been already sharply criticized for last summer's bloody crackdown on protesters in Istanbul's Taksim Square and this year's crackdown on social media.
The owner of the mine where the disaster occurred, Alp Gurkan, said he had spent his own money improving standards at the mine in the western town of Soma.
"I am hurting inside," he said at a news conference.
Gurkan said he hoped to continue operations at the Soma mine after correcting any problems found by investigators.
Responding to the outcry, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Friday that anyone found to have been negligent about safety at the mine can expect punishment.
"If they are at fault, no tolerance will be shown regardless of whether they are from the public or private sector," he said.
Erdogan's ruling party asked Parliament to set up an inquiry into the disaster — an apparent attempt to signal that authorities won't flinch from getting at the truth.
Huseyin Celik, a deputy leader of the ruling party, defended the government's record.
"We have no inspection and supervision problem," he said. "This mine was inspected vigorously 11 times since 2009."
His comments raised the question, however, of how the mine could have been so vigorously checked and still have an explosion that killed nearly 300 people. Celik also urged people to move on from the disaster — comments that certainly could rankle in industrial Soma, where days of heartbreaking funerals have been held this week.
"Let's learn from this pain and rectify our mistakes. The private sector and the public sector will draw lessons," he said. "This is not the time to look for a scapegoat."
The chief prosecutor in the nearby city of Akhisar said prosecutors had begun interviewing some of the injured miners and other witnesses.
The mining company said the exact cause of the accident is still not known but denied any wrongdoing.
"There is no negligence," said Soma mine engineer Akin Celik. "I have been doing this job for 20 years but I have never seen anything like this. We would not want harm to come to a single fingernail of our workers."
Ramazan Dogru, the mine's general manager, rejected initial reports that the fire was caused by an explosion at a power distribution unit.
"It was caused by an undetermined spark," Dogru said. "We believe that the fire grew because there was an entry of clean air there."
The mine officials said the mine had one safe room but that was in an area that was no longer in production. The company was preparing to build a second safe room when the accident occurred. Gurkan said, however, according to Turkish mining laws, safe rooms are not a legal requirement.
Turkey's Labor and Social Security Ministry said the mine's most recent inspection was in March, when no safety violations were detected. But Turkey's opposition party said Erdogan's ruling party had voted down a proposal to hold a parliamentary inquiry into several smaller accidents at mines around Soma.
The energy minister's comments suggested no one else was expected to come out alive from the mine, where most of the victims died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
"We believe that there are no more than 18 worker brothers inside the mine," Yildiz told reporters. He said that number is based on reports from families and data provided by the company.
"We have 284 losses, 18 brothers inside and 77 million people hurting," Yildiz said — the last figure a reference to Turkey's entire population.
Yildiz said a fire was still burning inside the mine, spreading noxious fumes, but it was getting smaller.
Grieving relatives in Soma laid dozens of their dead to rest in mass burials this week, chanting the names of lost miners and wailing with photos of their loved ones pinned to their chests.
Funeral prayers were being held in mosques throughout Turkey for the victims, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attending one in Istanbul.