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Turkey

Soma cordoned off after Turkish mine explosion, Erdogan takes German flak

Turkish police have put the mining town of Soma on virtual lockdown, in response to protests about the deaths of 301 workers. Istanbul was also the site of protests, almost a year after the Gezi Park demos.

As rescuers called off their search of the disaster site in Soma on Saturday, pulling the last two trapped bodies from the rubble, police set about effectively cordoning off the small town.

The local governor banned protests in response to Friday's heavy clashes between protesters and police in Soma. Riot police patrolled the devastated and angry town, while Reuters reported that checkpoints were set up on the major approach roads.

Turkey's private Dogan news agency reported that a total of 36 people, including eight lawyers, were arrested during the lockdown on suspicion that they planned to start further protests.

As the inquiry into the disaster began, local media reported on Sunday that at least 18 people were detained - including mining executives - suspected of negligence. NTV television reported that Akin Celik, operations manager of the mine company Soma Komur, was among those arrested. Company officials have so far denied any negligence, while the labor ministry has said it conducted inspections of the site every six months.

The 301 deaths in Soma have also sparked demonstrations around the country, fueled in no small part by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's handling of the disaster. Comments likening the tragedy to 19th century mining accidents in Britain were poorly received. Furthermore, videos circulated on Internet social media platforms like Twitter and Youtube - websites Turkey has sought to ban in recent months - which appeared to show the prime minister slapping a man during his visit to Soma.

In the footage, Erdgoan also seemed to call out to the protester, saying: "Why are you running away, Israeli spawn?" Erdogan's adviser Yalcin Akdogan accused "gang members" of provoking his entourage at the site. An official from Erdogan's office on Saturday appeared to dispute the veracity of the online footage in a statement issued to the AFP news agency: "The prime minister has definitely not used such an expression. The use of such an expression is out of the question."

Istanbul restless, electioneering in Cologne?

Erdogan's government has managed to weather both widespread public protests and corruption allegations against his government and family over the past year, still emerging as the comfortable winner in key local elections in March.

The major Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, against a plan to raze the park for a major construction project, began almost exactly a year ago, on May 28, 2013. They soon spread around much of the country, partly in response to the tough police handling of the protests.

The prime minister, in office since 2003, is broadly expected to run in, and probably win Turkey's presidential elections in August. His AK Party's internal rules currently preclude Erdogan from seeking another term in the prime minister's post.

For the first time, Turkish citizens living abroad can vote in the presidential polls. Erdogan is set to visit Cologne on Saturday, May 24, in a visit that has been criticized by several German political parties.

"I can only hope that during Erdogan's appearance in Cologne, as many people as possible of Turkish origin living here demonstrate, through their absence, that they are not satisfied with the current situation in Turkey," senior Christian Democrat politician Julia Klöckner said at the weekend.

The German government's special commissioner for integration, Social Democrat Aydan Özoguz, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that the latest pictures of police mobilizing against protesters were "absolutely shocking and inacceptable."

"Such images move Turkey far away from democratic standards," Özoguz said.

The Left party's spokesman for international relations, Sevim Dagdelen, criticized Erdogan's tough stance on trade unions, also mentioning ethnic minorities in Turkey like Alawites and Kurds. However, Dagdelen also said it was "hypocritical" of the ruling parties in Germany's grand coalition "to now take a stand against Erdogan's visit," saying that Erdogan's February trip to Berlin had effectively served as a campaign rally for March's local elections.

msh/mz (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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