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Funerals begin in Soma,Turkey, following the mining disaster

Turkish officials have confirmed a death toll of over 280 after Tuesday's mine explosion. Protests are spreading across the country over worker safety problems - and prime minister Erdogan's response to the tragedy.

Volunteers have begun digging over two hundred graves, burying victims of Tuesday's accident.

According to the mining company Soma Holding, 450 of the 787 workers in the mine at the time of the accident were rescued. But it also said there was little chance that any trapped workers would be rescued.

"A maximum number of 18 workers are inside," energy minister Taner Yildiz told reporters on Friday. "We expect the toll at around 301 or 302." It was unclear if the men were still alive.

The mine collapsed following a blast on Tuesday. Since then there have been reports of security breaches and violations of safety standards. Turkish news agency Dogan reported that there had been only one small safe room for 6,500 workers at the Soma mine.

Trade union strikes over the worst industrial accident in Turkey's history have been underway since Wednesday.

The Public Workers Union Confederation (KESK) demanded accountability for the mining tragedy.

"Hundreds of our workers have been left to die from the very beginning by being forced to work in cruel production processes to achieve maximum profits," Turkey's four largest unions wrote in a joint statement.

"We call on our the working class and friends of laborers to stand up for our brothers in Soma," the statement added.

However, it was Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's comments# while visiting Soma on Wednesday that fueled public outrage by suggesting that the accident was not unusual.

"These are ordinary things," Erdogan said. "Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It's not like these don't happen elsewhere in the world," he continued, referring to a major mining accident in England in the 19th century.

The publication of a photograph showing one of Erdogan's advisors kicking a protester who was lying on the ground sparked outrage across the country.

Police used water cannons to disperse an estimated 20,000 protesters in the western city of Izmir, while demonstrators in Istanbul and Ankara are taking to the streets calling for the government to resign.

rg/jr (dpa, AFP, Reuters)

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