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Three people, including manager, arrested over Turkey mining disaster

Riot police scuffle with protesters during a demonstration blaming the ruling AK Party (AKP) government for the mining disaster in western Turkey, at Taksim square in central Istanbul May 17, 2014. REUTERS/Yagiz Karahan

Last Updated May 18, 2014 6:15 PM EDT

ISTANBUL - In the face of widespread anger over Turkey's worst mining disaster, prosecutors arrested three people, including a company manager, on charges of negligence Sunday.

The three were also accused of causing the death of more than one person, a charge that doesn't imply intent, prosecutor Bekir Sahiner said at a news conference in the western town of Soma, where 301 coal miners were killed in Tuesday's tragedy.

The arrests follow allegations by miners that the company failed to heed safety concerns and that government inspections had been superficial. The disaster has provoked anger at a critical time for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as he mulls running in August's presidential election.

A total of 25 people were initially detained for questioning and six were later released, Sahiner said. Prosecutors will now decide whether to charge or release the remaining 16 people in custody.

Sahiner said one of those arrested was the company's operations manager. The manager is Akin Celik, though Sahiner didn't identify him by name.

The charges can lead to sentences of between three and 15 years in prison, according to the Turkish penal code.

Other company executives were among the detained as Turkish officials investigate the mining disaster. Sahiner said they included the mine's technical supervisor, its head of operations, it safety manager, duty managers and a high ranking company executive. The Dogan news agency reported earlier that Ramazan Dogru, general manager of the mine owned by Soma Holding was detained.

Government and company officials have insisted that the mine was inspected regularly and negligence was not a factor. But reacting to widespread public anger, government officials promised to investigate and pledged that any mine officials found to be negligent would be punished.

The Milliyet newspaper said Saturday that a preliminary report by a mine safety expert who inspected the Soma mine suggested that smoldering coal caused the mine's roof to collapse. The report said the tunnel's support beams were made of wood, not metal, and the mine had too few carbon monoxide sensors.

Company officials have described safety standards as high, noting that the mine contained 50 gas sensors and employees were provided gas masks.

At a press conference Friday, Celik said thick smoke from the underground fire killed many miners who were not carrying gas masks. Rescue workers entering the mine complained of high levels of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

"There is no negligence," Celik said. "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."

On Saturday, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said rescue workers retrieved the bodies of the last two miners missing in the disaster, putting the death toll at 301. Authorities then sealed the mine entrance with bricks.

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