ISTANBUL (AP) – In the face of widespread anger over Turkey’s worst mining disaster, prosecutors arrested three people, including a company manager, on charges of negligence Sunday.
The three were also accused of causing the death of more than one person, a charge that doesn’t imply intent, prosecutor Bekir Sahiner said at a news conference in the western town of Soma, where 301 coal miners were killed in Tuesday’s tragedy.
The arrests follow allegations by miners that the company failed to heed safety concerns and that government inspections had been superficial. The disaster has provoked anger at a critical time for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as he mulls running in August’s presidential election.
A total of 25 people were initially detained for questioning and six were later released, Sahiner said. Prosecutors will now decide whether to charge or release the remaining 16 people in custody.
Sahiner said one of those arrested was the company’s operations manager. The manager is Akin Celik, though Sahiner didn’t identify him by name.
The charges can lead to sentences of between three and 15 years in prison, according to the Turkish penal code.
Other company executives were among the detained as Turkish officials investigate the mining disaster. Sahiner said they included the mine’s technical supervisor, its head of operations, it safety manager, duty managers and a high ranking company executive. The Dogan news agency reported earlier that Ramazan Dogru, general manager of the mine owned by Soma Holding was detained.
Government and company officials have insisted that the mine was inspected regularly and negligence wasn’t a factor in the explosion and fire at the mine. But reacting to anger and sympathy for the miners, government officials promised to investigate and pledged that any mine officials found to be negligent would be punished.
But anger has been mounting in Turkey, leading to protests and clashes in several cities.
About 2,000 people, who were angry at perceived insensitivity on how the disaster and its aftermath were handled by Erdogan and his government, marched in Istanbul chanting “Damn AKP’s dictatorship!” referring to the ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP.
Previous protests in Soma and other cities have turned violent as police have used tear gas and water cannons to disperse rock-throwing protesters urging Erdogan’s government to resign.
The Milliyet newspaper said Saturday that a preliminary report by a mine safety expert who inspected the Soma mine suggested that smoldering coal caused the mine’s roof to collapse. The report said the tunnel’s support beams were made of wood, not metal, and the mine had too few carbon monoxide sensors. Sahiner said that the authors are continuing their investigation and preparing a final report.
Company officials have described safety standards as high, noting that the mine contained 50 gas sensors and employees were provided with gas masks.
On Saturday, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said rescue workers retrieved the bodies of the last two miners missing in the disaster, putting the death toll at 301. Authorities then sealed the mine entrance with bricks.