Turkey’s prime minister has declared three days of national mourning in the wake of the tragedy but his response to questions about mine safety have sparked fresh controversy.
Opponents have accused the Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government of ignoring repeated warnings about the safety of the country’s mines.
“We as a nation of 77 million are experiencing very great pain,” Erdogan told a news conference after visiting the site.
But he appeared to go on the defence when asked whether adequate measures had been in place at the mine.
“Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world,” he said reeling off a list of global mining accidents since 1862.
“Obviously this is a huge accident which has touched and saddened us deeply. This mine , however, was among the safest in terms of safety and protection according to a tests we had in April and May,” Erdogan added.
Government and mine operators blamed
An opposition politician Ozgur Ozel who has previously demanded an investigation into a spate of mining accidents in Soma, scene of the latest tragedy, criticised the government and mine-owners.
The accident has thrown a spotlight on Turkey’s poor record on workplace safety and on what government critics say is its willfully lax regulation.
“Our proposal was aimed at preventing accidents like this,” Ozel, a local MP from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said in Soma.
He blamed leasing arrangements implemented by Erdogan’s AK Party over the past decade, which allowed private firms to operate formerly state-run mines, for ruining safety standards.
“The only way to increase profitability is to cut down costs,” he said. “Workers’ health, security and accident prevention are seen by mine operators as expensive, invisible and a burden. This is where savings are made first.”
The Labour Ministry said this week that its officials had carried out regular inspections at the Soma mine, most recently in March, and that no irregularities had been detected.