Turkey mine disaster

Turkish miners meet in front of a statue in the western town of Soma, four days after an underground explosion took 301 lives. (Bulent Kilic / AFP/ Getty Images / May 17, 2014)

The search for survivors of Turkey’s worst mining accident of modern times ended Saturday with the recovery of two more bodies, the country’s energy minister said, leaving the death toll in the Soma mine disaster at 301.

The catastrophe has sparked angry protests across Turkey, raised pointed questions about the relationship between the government and private industries, and left a combative Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the political defensive.

The operator of the mine complex in western Turkey has denied any negligence.

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, who has served as the government’s main spokesman in the wake of an underground fire on Tuesday that spread smoke and deadly fumes throughout the mine’s miles of tunnels, told reporters that 485 miners emerged alive – either rescued or making their way out on their own. The rest perished, he said.

Saturday’s search-and-recovery efforts were hampered by a fresh blaze in the mine, and families of the dead and missing expressed renewed fury and frustration over what they called a lack of compassion and credible information from the government.

Authorities have responded to the outpouring of grief and anger with shows of force. In Soma, near the mine, police fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters, and detained 15 lawyers who were trying to help the families, the Zaman newspaper reported. The government blamed tensions on “provocateurs.”

Demonstrators in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, shouted, “Burn AKP!” – a reference to the Turkish initials for Erdogan’s Justice and Development party. Others leaned from apartment windows, beating pots and pans with spoons, reminiscent of last year’s protracted unrest targeting the government’s plans to pave over one of the city center’s last green spaces, Gezi Park.

Erdogan, who visited the disaster site on Wednesday, has been sharply criticized for describing mining accidents as a “normal” occurrence. Adding to the furor, a top aide to the prime minister was captured in a widely circulated photograph kicking a protester who was being held down by police.

“That sent a message of absolute contempt for the tragedy,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “In many countries, a minister would resign over this. A full, public inquiry needs to be launched.”

Public prosecutors have launched an investigation into the tragedy, Turkish media reported. The probe is expected to focus on possible negligence, and attempt to definitively determine the cause of the blaze that spread through the depths of the mine. It was initially blamed on an explosion in a power transformer.

Weeks ago, an opposition-backed motion to investigate safety at the Soma mine was rejected by the AKP, despite longstanding warnings about dangerous safety lapses.

Johnson is a special correspondent. Staff writer Laura King in Cairo contributed to this report.