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Turkey Mine Disaster Ignites Angry Protests Over Worker Safety

Image: Riot police detain a protester as he and others demonstrate to blame the ruling AK Party (AKP) government on the mining disaster in western Turkey, in Ankara

Riot police detain a protester as he and others demonstrate to blame the ruling AK Party government on the mining disaster in western Turkey, in Ankara on May 14, 2014. Reuters

Anguish quickly turned to anger over Turkey’s mine disaster Wednesday, with protests kicking off over the government’s failure to respond to previous deaths at the site.

As the death toll climbed and rescuers scrambled to find survivors in the burning Soma mine, several unions announced national strikes and demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of the mine’s owners.

There were also angry confrontations when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Soma, with rocks reportedly thrown at police protecting the leader's entourage as it passed through crowds.

The prime minister was booed after speaking about the mine, with members of the crowd yelling "Resign! Resign!" At least ten protesters were taken away from the scene by police.

Thousands gathered Wednesday night in Istanbul's Taksim Square, where protests have taken place since last year opposing the construction of a shopping center.

Turkish police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd, Reuters reported.

The mine accident also prompted clashes in Turkey's capital of Ankara on Wednesday.

In recent years, inspections at the mine where an explosion Tuesday claimed the lives of at least 274 workers have uncovered multiple safety infractions, but no fines were ever issued. An opposition lawmaker’s proposal to investigate previous deaths at the site was defeated in Turkey's parliament just last month.

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“This was not an accident, it happened because not enough is ever done to protect workers,” said Ercan Akkaya, a union organizer and a researcher in political science at Istanbul’s Bogazici University told NBC News. “The government is complicit in these deaths, in our tragedy. Since 2006, almost 11,000 workers in Turkey have died while doing their jobs.”

On Istanbul’s subway system, protesters ‘played dead’ in tribute to the Soma miners and shared pictures on social media, gathering momentum behind a planned march on Taksim Square later Wednesday.

“We think there will be thousands of people taking part in these protests,” said Akkaya.

Four unions announced a national walkout for Thursday, angry that safety regulations have not kept pace with Turkey’s industrial growth.

“Construction helped save Turkey’s economy in 2008, yet nothing is ever done to reduce the number of deaths, said Asli Odman, a researcher with industry safety lobby group Istanbul Health & Safety Labor Watch. “Turkey has one of the worst records in the world in construction and mining. These deaths as Soma were totally forseeable.”

Some Holding, which owns the mine, is also involved in major government-linked construction projects, including the building of Istanbul’s second-higest skyscraper, Odman said.

Outside the mine owner's headquarters Wednesday, protesters painted their faces black in solidarity with the miners.

Some of Wednesday's anger was also aimed at Erdogan, who said after 30 workers were killed in a 2010 gas explosion that death was the "destiny" for coal miners.

However, one analyst said the “intense politicization” of the disaster could become a “potential flashpoint” in a country racked by deep social divisions.

“The government should be held accountable for this, although I think it probably won’t be,” said Aaron Stein, associate fellow and expert on Turkey at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies.

“It has been less than 24 hours since this happened - they haven’t even got the bodies out - and yet people are already lining up to use this as a weapon in their battle against the government. Aren’t the families first entitled to their grief?”

Aziz Akyavas and Reuters contributed to this report.