Protests broke out in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities Wednesday over the deaths and poor safety conditions at mines around the country. In Istanbul and Izmir, authorities used water cannons and tear gas to break up the protests. Turkey's largest trade union confederation, representing some 800,000 workers, joined a one-day strike by other unions to demand better conditions for workers.
Miners in Zonguldak, obeying the strike, gathering in front of a pit Thursday but did not enter it. In Istanbul, a group chanted anti-government slogans and carried a large banner that read: "It's not an accident, it's murder."
Yildiz, the energy minister, said the search for survivors had been hampered by a mine fire that had spread to a conveyor system — engulfing a 200 meter-long (650-foot) stretch — but progress had been made on extinguishing it. Rescue operations have been suspended several times as burning coal inside created toxic fumes and too-risky conditions for the rescue teams.
Authorities said the disaster followed an explosion and a fire at a power distribution unit, and most deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Yildiz said emergency crews had detected a drop in carbon monoxide levels "which means that the fire has gotten smaller."
"God willing, in two or three hours if we are able to extinguish this fire, we will be able to hasten our (rescue) work," he said.
The government has said 787 people were inside the coal mine at the time of Tuesday's explosion, and that 383 were rescued, many with injuries. Tuesday's explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, which likely raised the casualty toll.
The death toll made it Turkey's worst mining accident, topping a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.
Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions. Erdogan promised that Tuesday's tragedy would be investigated to its "smallest detail" and that "no negligence will be ignored." Hurriyet newspaper reported that a team of 15 prosecutors has been assigned to investigate the accident.
Turkey's Labor and Social Security Ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, most recently in March, when no safety violations were detected. But the country's main opposition party said Erdogan's ruling party had recently voted down a proposal to hold a parliamentary inquiry into a series of small-scale accidents at the mines around Soma.
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara.