By DESMOND BUTLER
and SUZAN FRASER
SOMA, Turkey (AP) -- A Turkish mining company defended its safety record Friday, four days after at least 284 people died in an underground blaze at its coal mine in western Turkey.
A maximum of 18 miners remain missing and the final death toll will be around 300, the country's energy minister said.
The mining company's owner, Alp Gurkan, said he had spent his own money on improving standards at the mine. "I am hurting inside," he said at a news conference of company officials.
Turkey's worst mining disaster has set off a raft of protests against what is perceived as official laxity and corruption.
The public anger has stirred up new hostility toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, which was sharply criticized for last summer's brutal response to protesters in Istanbul's Taksim square and its crackdown earlier this year on social media.
"It's not an accident, it's murder," read a banner waved by trade unionists who marched through the streets of Istanbul on Thursday.
Responding to the public outcry, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Friday that 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."
"If they are at fault, no tolerance will be shown regardless of whether they are from the public or private sector," he said.
The mining company said the exact cause of the accident is still not known but denied any wrongdoign.
"There is no negligence," said 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."
Ramazan Dogru, the mine's general manager, 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."
The mine officials said the mine had one safe room which was later made obsolete. It was making preparations to build a second one when the accident occurred. Gurkan said that according to Turkish mining laws, however, the safe rooms are not a legal requirement.
Turkey's Labor and Social Security Ministry says 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.
The energy minister's comments suggested that no one else was expected to come out alive from the mine in Soma, where 284 miners are confirmed dead, mostly from carbon monoxide poisoning.
"We believe that there are no more than 18 worker brothers inside the mine," Yildiz told reporters Friday. He said that number is based on reports from families and data provided by the company.
"We have 284 losses, 18 brothers inside and 77 million people hurting," Yildiz said, the last figure in reference to Turkey's population.
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 Friday.
Fraser reported from Ankara.