SOMA, Turkey (AP) -- A maximum of 18 miners remain missing inside a devastated coal mine and the final death toll will be around 300, Turkey's energy minister said today.
Although he did not spell it out, Taner Yildiz's comments suggested that no one else was expected to come out alive from the mine in Soma, western Turkey. Some 284 miners are known to have died in Turkey's worst mining disaster.
"We believe that there are no more than 18 people inside the mine," Yildiz told reporters. He said that was based on reports from families and data provided by the company.
Yildiz said a fire is still burning inside the mine, spreading noxious fumes, but that "it is declining."
Grieving relatives laid their dead to rest in mass burials Thursday, with photos of their loved ones pinned to their chests and chanting the names of lost miners. More funerals were planned for today.
The minister said anyone found to have been negligent about safety at the mine can expect punishment. He said: "We won't take any notice of their tears."
The mining company today denied any negligence and said the exact cause of the accident is still not known. At a news conference of company officials, Ramazan Dogru, the general manager of the mine, rejected initial reports that claimed the fire was caused by an explosion at a power distribution unit.
"It was caused by an undetermined spark,"Dogru said. "We believe that the fire grew because there was an entry of clean air there."
"There is no negligence," added Soma mine engineer Akin Celik. "I have been doing this job for 20 years but I have never seen anything like this. We would not want harm to come to a single fingernail of our workers."
The company's owner, Alp Gurkan, said he had spent his own money on improving standards at the mine. "I am hurting inside," he said.
The disaster has stirred up new hostility toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government and thrown his presidential ambitions off stride. Blackening his reputation further, Turkish newspapers published a photograph Thursday of one of Erdogan's aides kicking a protester who was being held on the ground by armed police.
Turkey's Labor and Social Security Ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, most recently in March, when no safety violations were detected. But the country's opposition party said Erdogan's ruling party had voted down a proposal to hold a parliamentary inquiry into several smaller accidents at mines around Soma.
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara.