Sun, Jul 25, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Turkish leaders spurn calls to quit after train mishap

AP , MEKECE, TURKEY

Facing harsh criticism for ignoring warnings about its showcase express train, the government on Friday dismissed calls for resignations over a derailment that left 37 people dead and 81 injured in one of Turkey's worst train disasters.

The crash came only weeks after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan inaugurated the same train for its first trip while wearing a stationmaster's cap, despite much-publicized appeals by an engineer that aging train tracks were not in shape for the train.

At least four cars overturned Thursday evening near the village of Mekece, about halfway on its journey from Istanbul to Ankara.

Officials have ruled out sabotage. Transport Minister Binali Yildirim told a press conference on Friday that authorities were still investigating the crash's cause, but added that the train had been traveling 38kph over the speed limit of 80kph. He also said that it would be wrong to attribute the crash to speed alone.

The train's engineer and his assistant were detained for questioning Friday. The country's opposition leader suggested the men were being made scapegoats.

``In any other country a government that acts so irresponsibly would have long resigned,'' Deniz Baykal said.

``It is noteworthy that the conductors have been detained while those responsible are walking around. They are trying to put the blame on the engineers,'' he said.

Ismail Gurses, a lawyer for the two engineers, said his clients say ``the express train was put into operation without the necessary infrastructure arrangements.''

Erdogan's government has a huge majority in Parliament and is still very popular.

The prime minister dismissed calls on Friday by Turkish media for the resignation of Yildirim and scolded reporters who asked if the transport minister would resign.

``The first question you ask should maybe be the last thing that comes to mind,'' said Erdo-gan. ``Have governments resigned, ministers been removed, when these type of accidents occurred in Turkey in the past?''

A group uniting transportation trade unions and engineering associations said it held the government responsible for the crash and suggested that the death toll could be higher than the one announced by the government. In a statement on Friday evening, the prime minister's office said 37 people were killed and 81 others injured in the crash.

``The political understanding which puts political gains before human lives still prevails in Turkey,'' said Fehmi Kutan, leader of the United Transport Workers Union.

``Serial murder,'' the daily Hurriyet newspaper said. ``Express massacre,'' was the headline in Sabah. ``They died for the sake of a show,'' wrote Milliyet.

The disaster was a major embarrassment for the government, which dismissed concerns raised about the high-speed train before it was inaugurated last month.

``Prime minister, hear me!'' a woman shouted as Erdogan visited the crash area. ``My husband is dead; he should never have ridden on that train.''

Experts had called on the government to modernize the rail infrastructure before allowing the trains to travel.

Aydin Erel, professor of engineering at Istanbul's Yildiz Technical University, said he had warned the government as recently as July 14 that the tracks were not up to standard.

His warnings had been widely reported in Turkish media at the time.

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