Ankara, Turkey: A video showing an aide to Turkey's prime minister kicking a protester held on the ground by special forces police sparked outrage on Thursday, tarnishing the Turkish leader's image ahead of his expected run for president.
Turkish newspapers also published photographs showing the adviser kicking the protester and identified him as Yusuf Yerkel, a deputy chief of staff at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office and adviser to the prime minister.
Turkey mine blast: PM's aide kicks protester
Video shows an aide to Turkey's prime minister kicking a protester held on the ground by special forces police. NO SOUND.
The incident occurred during Mr Erdogan's visit on Wednesday to a coal mine in the western town of Soma where at least 283 miners were killed in Turkey's worst mining disaster. Scores of others are still missing.
Angry protesters heckled Mr Erdogan and scuffles broke out between demonstrators and police in Soma, forcing the Turkish leader to take refuge in a supermarket before being driven off in a black vehicle.
Hurriyet newspaper said a protester kicked a vehicle in Mr Erdogan's convoy, prompting the special forces police to jump in and force the man to the ground. Mr Yerkel then kicked the protester "three or four times," the paper said.
Mr Yerkel issued a statement on Thursday that expressed regret but also claimed that he was provoked.
"I am sorry that I was not able to keep calm despite all the provocations, insults and attacks that I was subjected to," he said.
Twitter was abuzz with posts condemning Mr Yerkel's action and an opposition party demanded an explanation for it.
"Do his responsibilities include beating up and kicking protesters or citizens? On which legal grounds was he given this authority?" lawmaker Ugur Bayraktutan asked in a question submitted for the government to answer.
The prime minister's office distanced itself from the incident, with one official saying the issue was Mr Yerkel's "own personal matter." The official was not allowed to give his name to the press without authorisation, which he did not have.
Mr Erdogan is widely expected to run in Turkey's presidential election in August, although he has not yet announced his candidacy. He has already served the maximum three terms as prime minister.
As the death toll from Turkey's worst mining accident mounted, labour leaders on Thursday called for a one-day strike.
Demonstrations had already broken out Wednesday in Ankara, the capital, and in Istanbul, as public displeasure surfaced over poor safety standards at the mine and a lack of official information about events since Tuesday, when an explosion ignited underground fires. On Thursday, the police fired water cannons to disperse crowds of demonstrators in the Aegean port city of Izmir, some 120 km southwest of here.
Rescue workers, meanwhile, struggled to locate scores of coal miners still unaccounted for but officials said hopes for finding those trapped were fading. The official death toll increased overnight to 282 as eight more bodies were recovered, surpassing the grim tally from a mine accident on the Black Sea in 1992 that killed 263 workers.
Turkish President: 'Our pain is so big'
Visiting the site where nearly 300 miners were killed in an explosion, Turkish President Abdullah Gul says that the tragedy has deeply affected his entire country.
Such was the blend of outrage and grief among survivors and relatives that Mr Erdogan was forced to take refuge at a supermarket during a visit to this town near the stricken mine on Wednesday. Angry crowds called him a murderer and a thief and clashed with police, The Associated Press reported.
Striking a more conciliatory tone at the mine on Thursday, President Abdullah Gul told mourners and relatives, "The pain is everybody's." But one person called out to him that the presence of his security detail was itself obstructing rescue efforts, news reports said.
Public discontent has deepened as victims' families demand answers about what happened at the coal mine.
Five labour unions called for a one-day nationwide strike on Thursday, demanding better health and safety standards for miners. They also said mine inspectors should be drawn from labour unions and that they should include independent experts not employed by the mining corporations. The mine at Soma was formerly state-owned but had been leased to a private company, news reports said.
"Miners suffer long working hours, have no occupational safety or social security, and when most of them are unregistered, they are part of an unregistered economy," said Umar Karatepe, a spokesman for the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey.
Mr Karatepe said the privatisation of mines had led to a sharp increase in accidents "because profit is always more valuable than miners' lives in the private sector."
He said protests would continue until the energy minister, Taner Yildiz, resigned and the government attended to the miners' immediate concerns.
Many relatives of the miners have complained about a lack of information from the government and from local emergency agencies. "No official came here to talk to us, explain what's going on," said the aunt of a 25-year-old miner Wednesday.
The government's emergency centre said on Thursday that 217 of the 282 bodies recovered so far had been handed over to families for burial. The funerals are likely to intensify the anger provoked by the disaster.
The number of people still trapped in the mine is unclear and rescue efforts have been slowed because of the risk of gas explosions and continuing fires underground, according to an official in the prime minister's office, who spoke on the condition anonymity under departmental rules.
On three occasions, the dangers forced authorities to suspend attempts to bring more bodies to the surface, the official said.
"Imagine the mine as a huge nest of coal, which is burning quietly and can be put out only if pressurised water is pumped into all galleries," the official said.
The prime minister's office estimated Thursday that around 120 bodies remained to be recovered, but some miners said the figure could be more than 200.
AP, New York Times