At least 274 workers were confirmed dead in Turkey's devastating mine explosion, officials said yesterday, making the accident the country's worst industrial catastrophe.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said the raging fire was hampering rescue efforts, adding that "time is not working in our favour".
Anger was growing across Turkey yesterday as hopes faded for scores of workers trapped in the collapsed mine.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Ankara and Istanbul, accusing the government and mining industry of negligence, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejected claims of government culpability.
"We have witnessed one of the biggest work accidents in our recent history," Erdogan told reporters after visiting the mine in the western town of Soma in Manisa province.
Erdogan said figures remained uncertain but mining operators thought 120 workers were still trapped following Tuesday's explosion, caused by an electrical fault. Reports from rescue workers on the scene suggest the figure could be far higher.
Erdogan said enquiries would be launched into the causes of the disaster, but insisted that "such accidents happen".
He also appeared to downplay the seriousness of the accident, comparing it to other mining disasters elsewhere, saying "204 people died in the UK in 1862 and 361 people in 1864".
"There is something in literature called work accidents."
But hundreds of distraught family and friends gathered near the building where Erdogan gave a press conference were outraged, with some kicking his vehicle and calling for his resignation as he left.
Public anger also erupted on the streets over the accident which had claimed at least 245 lives -- most by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Police used tear gas and water canon to disperse between 3,000 and 4,000 protesters in Ankara's downtown Kizilay Square on Wednesday evening.
Riot police also clashed with thousands of protesters in Istanbul who were chanting anti-government slogans as they marched along the city's main shopping street Istiklal.
Earlier in the day, they also used tear gas against around 800 students marching on the energy ministry, and 50 protesters who threw eggs at the mining research directorate in Istanbul, AFP photographers reported.
The disaster risks adding to the political pressure on Erdogan, who faced mass protests last summer and a huge corruption scandal involving his family and key allies in recent months.
"If the claims of negligence at the mine prove true, it will have a political price. Such a development would render corruption allegations targeting Erdogan's government more convincing," Professor Ilter Turan of Istanbul's Bilgi University told AFP.
'NO MORE HOPE'
Three days of national mourning have been declared, while at the scene of the accident, fires and toxic gases were complicating increasingly desperate efforts by 400 rescue workers.
A miner from a different site who joined the effort, Murat Kurkoglu, told AFP: "We will try to save those who are still stuck one by one, but you know very well that there is no more hope. It's finished for them."
Earlier reports said 787 workers were underground when the blast occurred. By late Wednesday, "close to 450" workers had been rescued, according to the mine operator, Soma Komur Inc, but accounts from rescue workers cast doubt over the numbers.
"There are pockets of air, but it's only a glimmer of hope because so far ... it's mostly the dead that we are bringing out," Erdem Bakin, a doctor with the Search and Rescue organisation, told AFP.
"We don't go more than 100 metres from the bottom of the mine. It's impossible to go right to the bottom because of the risk of asphyxiation from the gas."
Bakin said they found the transformer that exploded, triggering the collapse. Those between the transformer and the entrance of the mine -- around 70-80 people -- survived.
"But those who were beyond were taken by the fire and they are all dead," he said.
Harun Unzar, a miner at the site, said: "We are a family and today that family is devastated. We have had very little news and when it does come it's very bad."