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Turkey mine officials questioned about safety as search for miners continues

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By Diana Magnay, Laura Smith-Spark and Gul Tuysuz

SOMA, Turkey (CNN) -- Three days after a fire tore through a coal mine in Turkey, 18 miners are feared still to be trapped below ground, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Friday, as fresh questions were raised over safety measures at the site.

Yildiz told reporters at a news conference that the confirmed death toll is now 284.

But this could rise to as many as 302, he said, if the 18 men thought still to be in the Soma coal mine have all died after the explosion and blaze. Previous estimates had put the number of missing miners at over 100.

Autopsies have revealed that the victims died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

At a news conference Friday, the owner and managers of the mine were questioned about the provision of safety chambers, where workers can find fresh air to breathe in the event of problems.

According to site manager Akin Celik, a safety chamber with oxygen supplies had been constructed in a higher gallery of the mine but was decommissioned when the main excavation work moved to a lower level.

Those running the mine were in the "process of building" a new safety chamber at that lower level, he said.

This indicates there was no safety chamber in a main area where the miners were working.

The disaster unfolded rapidly, said Celik, and heavy smoke cut off exit routes for the hundreds of men working deep underground. "The incident happened in five minutes," he said.

The owner of the company, Alp Gurman, said that the mine met the highest standards laid out by the law in Turkey and that there was no legal obligation to build safety chambers.

Authorities have previously said the fire was sparked by a transformer explosion, but Celik told reporters Friday that the cause of the fire was still unknown.

Asked what had happened, he said, "We don't know either. Never seen anything like this before. We are trying to find out."

Meanwhile, what has become more of a recovery effort than a rescue continues at the Soma site.

Smoke and fumes are hindering efforts to reach those still missing below the surface, and hope has dwindled that any more survivors will be found. Only in the first 24 hours after Tuesday's blast was anyone was pulled out alive.

Kicking a protester

Earlier this week, the image of an aide to Turkey's Prime Minister kicking a man protesting the coal mine fire prompted outrage -- and has become a symbol of the anger felt by many against the government.

The incident occurred as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the western city of Soma on Wednesday, a day after the devastating fire.

The man, detained by special forces, can be seen lying on the ground as the suited adviser to Erdogan, identified as Yusuf Yerkel by Turkish media and CNN Turk, aims a kick at him.

The shocking image outraged many in Turkey, prompting an outpouring of anger on social media, and is seen as symbolizing the increasingly polarizing impact of Erdogan's authority in the country.

Yerkel was quoted by Turkey's semiofficial Anadolu news agency Thursday as saying that he had been deeply saddened by the previous day's events. "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," he reportedly said.

In another incident Wednesday, video footage showed Erdogan being booed by an angry crowd outside a grocery store. As the Prime Minister entered the crowded store, he appeared to put his arm around the neck of a man, who was later identified as a miner.

After the confrontation, the video captured what appeared to be Erdogan's security guards beating the same man to the floor. The miner said later that Erdogan slapped him, possibly by mistake. But he wants an apology for the way he was treated by the Prime Minister's staff.

Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, dismissed the incident in the grocery store as an allegation unsupported by the footage.

Asked about Erdogan's aide, Yerkel, he said, "It is not possible to bend the whole truth from just one picture frame. Yusuf Yerkel has said that the man he was kicking on the ground had attacked him, injured him and that he had to get a doctor's note for seven days. Even after all that he has come out and said, 'I am sad that I could not keep my calm in the face of (the provocation.)' "

It's been nearly a year since anti-government protests first roiled Istanbul, prompting a response from authorities that was widely criticized as heavy-handed.

Besides the anger prompted by the photo, Erdogan's speech Wednesday to relatives of dead and injured miners was seen as highly insensitive and drew scathing criticism.

As public anger mounted through the evening, hundreds took to the streets in anti-government protests in Istanbul and Ankara, with police answering, in some cases, with water cannons and tear gas.

Trade unions called a national strike Thursday.

A 'sorrow for the whole Turkish nation'

President Abdullah Gul offered words of comfort as he visited Soma a day after his premier attracted public ire.

The mine fire is a "sorrow for the whole Turkish nation," Gul told reporters, and he offered his condolences to the victims' families.

An investigation into the disaster has begun, Gul said, adding that he was sure this would "shed light" on what regulations are needed. "Whatever is necessary will be done," he said.

Rescuers saved at least 88 miners in the frantic moments after a blast Tuesday during a shift change at the mine, sparking a choking fire deep inside.

Since then, the bodies of nearly 200 miners who were trapped in the burning shaft nearly a mile underground have been returned to their families.

Mass funerals took place Thursday in a community stricken with grief.

Political bonfire

In his much-criticized speech to the relatives of the dead and injured, the Prime Minister glossed over the issue of mine safety, describing the carnage they had suffered as par for the course in their dangerous business.

As he took a stroll through the city, onlookers showered him with deafening jeers as well as chants of "Resign, Prime Minister!"

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu defended Erdogan during an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.

"He was feeling all these pains in his heart," he said. "Everybody knows that our Prime Minister is always with the people, and always feels the pain of the people. Otherwise, he wouldn't get such a high support in eight elections in (the) last 10 years."

But the disaster opened up an old political wound.

Opposition politician Ozgur Ozel from the Manisa region, which includes Soma, filed a proposal in late April to investigate Turkish mines after repeated deadly accidents.

Erdogan's government stepped on the proposal. It claimed that the mine, owned by SOMA Komur Isletmeleri A.S., had passed recent inspections.

A Turkish engineers' association criticized mine ventilation and safety equipment this week as being "insufficient and old."

A lack of safety inspections has caused 100 coal mines to be closed in the last three years, according to Turkey's Energy Ministry.

Diana Magnay, Gul Tuysuz and Ivan Watson reported from western Turkey, and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported from London. CNN's Ben Brumfield and Talia Kayali contributed to this report.

The-CNN-Wire

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