'Final death toll' in Soma at 301 as tensions rise with arrests
The last body was carried out of the Soma mine on May 17, Energy Minister Taner Yıldız announced.The definitive death toll in the Soma disaster has been announced as 301 by the Turkish government, after "the last body" was reportedly pulled out of the mine on May 17. Tensions persist in the western Turkish town over controversial arrests and clashes between police and protesters.
Earlier, Energy Minister Taner Yıldız had announced that a new, localized fire was hampering search efforts. Yıldız told reporters that 485 miners had either escaped or been rescued after the mine blast and subsequent fire. But the official figures released by the authorities have sparked debate as many locals accuse the government of understating the real death toll, claiming that there are many more bodies that still remain buried in the mine.
According to Yıldız, the new fire broke out in a separate section of the mine, which is about 250 meters away from where the miners are trapped, creating further difficulties for rescue teams.
"Based on our assessment, we can say there are at most three more workers underground. Of course, we will continue our search efforts, but a new incident has happened today. A local fire started, independent of the initial fire [that was extinguished yesterday]. Methane levels are now rising," Yıldız said.
Responding to a question whether the workers had died of carbon monoxide intoxication or fire effluent toxicity, Yıldız said the exact cause would be revealed after the autopsies, adding that DNA tests will be performed for the identification of the victims before delivering the bodies to their families.
"The mine will be thoroughly searched again and the bodies will be compared with the applications of the families after the identification process is finished," he said.
Yıldız organized another press conference in the afternoon under pouring rain to announce that "two more workers are still underground." "We have located [the bodies]," the minister said, stressing that the fire was now "under control."
During a third press statement in the evening, the energy minister said the bodies of the last two workers were pulled out of the mine at 3.10 p.m. local time, putting the final death toll at 301. "We don't have any missing notice about another worker," he said, as rescue teams left the mine.
"[The government] won't leave Soma. We will be with our citizens here with psycho-social support," Yıldız added.
Tensions rise in Soma
Meanwhile, police have set up checkpoints on three main roads leading to the town of Soma on May 17 in the wake of mass protests that erupted a day earlier. The Manisa Governor's Office banned all demonstrations in the town on May 17, and eight lawyers who came to the city to give legal counsel to the victims' families were briefly detained.
Progressive Lawyers Association (ÇHD) head Selçuk Kozağaçlı and his colleague Efkan Bolaç were among lawyers who were handcuffed and temporarily sent by the police to the sports arena of Soma.
The lawyers were eventually released shortly after their detention upon the instruction of a prosecutor, but over 20 people remained in detention. An image showing Kozağaçlı's arm in bandage circulated on social media, with claims that his arm was broken as the result of a beating inflicted by the police.
In Istanbul, a group of students from the Istanbul Technical University (İTÜ) occupied the university's mining faculty late May 16 in protest at alleged links between İTÜ and the company operating the mine, Soma Holding, Doğan News Agency reported.
Students have put forward various demands, including for the university's links with the company to be cut and for the resignation of an İTÜ academic who said during a live TV broadcast that carbon monoxide poisoning is "a sweet death." The academic later apologized for his comment. The group of protesters also wrote the names of Soma's dead miners on the walls of the university.
The May 13 mine accident in Soma is the deadliest in Turkey's history, surpassing an explosion that killed 263 miners in Zonguldak in 1992.
The cause of the disaster is yet to be determined, but it has been initially claimed that it was due to an an electrical failure, which resulted in an explosion and fire.
The mine disaster has sparked a wave of anger against the government ahead of the August presidential elections, which the embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is expected to win.
Tension over the disaster is growing, particularly in Soma where police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse thousands of protesters. The police have also cracked down on peaceful vigils and protests across the country since the disaster occurred.