POLICE have fired tear gas and water cannon at thousands of protesters in the eastern town of Soma, where around 300 coal miners are now feared dead after a fire on Tuesday.

The protest occurred after the mine operators held a news conference yesterday to deny any negligence over the disaster in western Turkey.

It is believed fire sent carbon monoxide coursing through the mine within minutes but the exact cause of the country's worst industrial disaster remains unclear.

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Most of the 787 workers inside had oxygen masks but smoke and gas spread so quickly that many were unable to escape, with 284 confirmed dead and 18 believed still to be trapped.

"It was an unbelievable accident in a place where there have been very few accidents in 30 years," Soma Holding chairman Alp Gurkan told the tense news conference. "A mine with top level miners, accepted as being the most trustworthy and organised."

Anger has swept Turkey as the extent of the disaster became clear, with protests partly directed at mine owners accused of prioritising profit over safety, and partly at Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government, seen as too cosy with industry tycoons and too lax in enforcing regulations.

Footage of Mr Erdogan apparently slapping a man as residents jeered and jostled his entourage when he visited Soma, the scene of the disaster, did little to calm nerves.

The man, Taner Kuruca, claimed Mr Erdogan slapped him and he told Kanal D television he was then beaten by his bodyguards.

An AK Party spokesman said there was no visual evidence of Erdogan striking anyone, while an adviser accused "gang members" of provoking the prime minister's team as he went to meet mourning families.

Questioned on the relationship between Soma Holding executives and the AK Party, the mine's general manager Ramazan Dogru his wife was a local AK Party politician but Mr Gurkan said he had never met the prime minister before this week.