Turkey’s energy minister Taner Yildiz said Friday that about 18 miners are still trapped inside the coal mine, three days after an explosion killed hundreds, while the mine's owner denied negligence on the part of his company as a possible cause of the nation's worst mining disaster.

Yildiz, in a press conference, said that the casualty count may rise to 302 from the current 284, if the men trapped inside the coal mine in Soma in western Turkey are found not to have survived the explosion, even as 100 men are estimated to be missing. According to news reports, not a single person has been pulled out of the mine alive since Wednesday.

"We believe that there are no more than 18 people inside the mine," Yildiz told reporters according to Associated Press, or AP, adding that the government will punish those found guilty of negligence and “won't take any notice of their tears."

"If they are at fault, no tolerance will be shown regardless of whether they are from the public or private sector," Yildiz said, adding: "We have 284 losses, 18 brothers inside and 77 million people hurting."

While the fumes inside the mine have hindered the rescue operation several times, protests have raged across the country against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, demanding that he step down from his post.

While reports emerged that the miners had died mainly of improper air systems, which trapped carbon monoxide inside the mine, Soma Holdings, the company that owns the mine denied reports of negligence Friday and Ramazan Dogru, the general manager of the mine, said that the accident was caused by an “undetermined spark” and the "fire grew because there was an entry of clean air there.”

Akin Celik, a Soma mine engineer, said according to AP: "There is no negligence," adding: "I have been doing this job for 20 years but I have never seen anything like this. We would not want harm to come to a single fingernail of our workers."

On Thursday, Yusuf Yerkel, an adviser for Erdogan further angered the Turkish people when photographs emerged, and went viral on social media, of him kicking a protester several times.

"I am sad that I could not keep my calm in the face of all the provocation, insults, and attacks that I was subjected to that day," Yerkel said at a press conference Thursday, CNN reported citing a local news agency.