Turkey Mine Disaster Death Toll Likely to Top 300: Minister

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The final death toll in this week's mining accident in Turkey is likely to top 300, the country's energy minister said Friday, adding that a maximum of 18 people could still be trapped.

Some 284 miners are known to have died in the country’s worst ever mining disaster, Taner Yildiz told a televised news conference.

"We believe that there are no more than 18 people inside the mine," he said citing reports from families and data provided by the company.

The mine's owner, Soma Holding, said a total of 787 workers had been in the mine when an explosion and fire filled tunnels with deadly carbon monoxide on Tuesday. Of those, 122 have been hospitalized and a further 363 evacuated. A shift change was taking place at the time of the disaster, complicating efforts by authorities to calculate the exact numbers underground.

Yildiz added that anyone found to have been negligent about safety would be punished.

"We won't take any notice of their tears," he said of those potentially responsible. Mining experts in Turkey had seen the Soma mine as the best operated in the country and they had difficulty understanding how it had happened, he added.

Meanwhile, the operator of the mine said there was no negligence on the part of the company, although it did not know the exact cause of the accident.

"We still do not know how the accident happened. There is no negligence of ours in this incident. We all worked heart and soul," said Akin Celik, the plant manager.

The mine had been inspected 11 times since 2009, Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for the country's ruling party AKP, told a later news conference, adding that there were no loopholes in safety regulations.

Meanwhile, rescue workers continued the recovery effort and gravediggers carried on making room for the bodies.

Overnight the blackened bodies of another nine victims were brought to the surface. No one has been found alive since Wednesday.

The disaster and the government's response to it has prompted fury throughout the country, engulfing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a political crisis.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Henry Austin and Aziz Akyavas