Soma Mine Disaster Turns Supporters Of Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan Into Foes

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Turkey Soma Yerkel
A protester is kicked by Yusuf Yerkel (L), advisor to Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, as Special Forces police officers detain him during a protest against Erdogan's visit to Soma, a district in Turkey's western province of Manisa May 14, 2014.

SOMA, Turkey -- As the scale of Turkey's largest-ever mining disaster grew on Thursday, the hardscrabble town at the heart of the tragedy has become the unlikely scene of growing anti-government protests, in which former supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have overnight turned into some of his most vehement opponents.

The angry cries of thousands echoed through the dusty streets of Soma, in Turkey's mountainous southwest, as citizens protested on Wednesday and Thursday a coal mine accident that has claimed the lives of at least 282 workers. Approximately 150 more remain missing after an explosion ripped through a mine here on Tuesday night. Rescue work continues, but the missing are presumed dead.

“Don't be silent Turkey, or you'll be next!” chanted a crowd of protesting family members, miners and students. “They sent our loved ones into a furnace, but Soma's coal will set flame to this government,” said Halil Demirci, a 34-year old teacher whose brother was killed in the mine.

Anti-government anger in Soma -- which cast a solid 43 percent vote for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in municipal elections this March -- has provoked questions about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crisis management.

Erdoğan told families of the victims of Wednesday that the mine accident was a “commonplace” occurrence, comparing the disaster to accidents that had occurred in the West -- but more than a century ago. “Take the case of America, a place with every kind of technology. In 1907, 361 miners lost their lives there. In mines, accidents are a regular occurrence,” he said. Hours later, Erdoğan’s motorcade was met by an angry crowd as it left Soma.

Anger at the government has been further fueled by images shared on Twitter and social media of Yusuf Yerkel, a top aide to Erdoğan, kicking a Soma demonstrator while he was on the ground and being restrained by police during a demonstration on Wednesday.

Much of that rage has also been directed at the mine owner, Soma Group, which took over when the mine was privatized in 2005. Opposition lawmakers and miners have complained that safety standards have been lowered since the government sold the mine to Soma, under Erdoğan’s administration.

“We started with 1,000 people and moved up to 5,000 in a single year. Output went up tenfold,” said Volkan Kose, a 21-year veteran of the mine. But Kose and others said the infrastructure and safety equipment in the mine remained the same since the privatization, and conveyed their fears to local opposition politicians. A parliament appeal by the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) last year to see the mine overhauled was rejected by the government.

In an interview with Turkish media in 2012, Soma Holding CEO Can Gurkan stated that the company had brought down the costs of extracting a ton of coal from $130 to $28. That quote, which quickly made the rounds among protesters in recent days, has enraged residents of Soma. “Our lives were clearly secondary to this effort,” said Fevzi Kamdemir, a miner who was working to recover bodies from the mine on Thursday night.

Protesters on Thursday voiced anger over what they said were connections between the ruling government and Soma Holding. Melike Doğru, the wife of Soma Holding's general manager, was recently elected as head of the province's local parliament. On social media, images circulated showing coal bags distributed to rural families by the AKP before the March election, and bearing the stamp of Soma Coal.

The growing cloud of accusation fed growing distrust on Thursday. “This used to be a fortress for support of Erdoğan. (Now) nobody believes what this government says,” said Burhan Dogan, a local shopkeeper. “Erdoğan needs to show people now: We are still with you. We will punish wrongdoers. If he doesn't, he will have chosen his own destruction.”

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