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238 dead, over 100 missing in Turkey mine explosion

SOMA, Turkey -- Women wailed uncontrollably, men knelt sobbing and others just stared in disbelief outside a coal mine in western Turkey as rescue workers removed a steady stream of bodies Wednesday from an underground explosion and fire that killed at least 238 workers. The fate of more than 100 miners remained unclear in one of Turkey's worst mining disasters.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan postponed a foreign trip and gave an updated death toll figure during a visit to the coal mine in Soma, about 250 kilometers south of Istanbul. The deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, officials said.

Erdogan discussed rescue operations with authorities and walked near the entrance of the mine with a huge entourage. He comforted two crying women, expressing sorrow and wishing them well. Earlier, Erdogan declared three days of national mourning, ordering flags to be lowered to half-staff.

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma at the time of Tuesday's explosion and 363 of them had been rescued. Scores were injured, Yildiz told reporters in Soma, where he was overseeing operations by more than 400 rescuers.

“Regarding the rescue operation, I can say that our hopes are diminishing,” Yildiz said before Erdogan's visit.

The last worker rescued alive emerged from the mine around dawn, a government official said on condition of anonymity because she didn't have prior authorization to speak publicly to journalists about the issue. As of 3:30 p.m., it had been about 10 hours since anyone had been brought out alive.

The explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, officials said, which likely raised the casualty toll because there were more miners inside than usual.

Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions. Turkey's worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.

In Istanbul, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of the company which owns the mine, Soma Holding. In the capital, Ankara, police dispersed a group who tried to march to the energy ministry to protest the deaths, the Dogan news agency reported.

Turkey's Labor and Social Security Ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, including in March of 2014, and that no issues violating work safety and security were detected.

The country's main opposition party said that Erdogan's ruling party had recently voted down a proposal for the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry into a series of small-scale accidents at mines around Soma.

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Rescue workers walk to a coal mine following an explosion in Soma, western Turkey, early Wednesday, May 14. Rescuers desperately raced against time to reach more than 200 miners trapped underground Wednesday after an explosion and fire at a coal mine in western Turkey killed over 200 workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history. (AP)

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