ANKARA - Turkey put the death toll from the devastating mine blast at 245 on Wednesday, and a coal mine operator said nearly 450 of its workers had been rescued.

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said the ongoing fire and toxic carbon monoxide fumes were hampering rescue efforts at the mine in the western town of Soma. The mine operator Soma Komur said in a statement that close to 450 of its workers had been rescued since the explosion on Tuesday.

"We have witnessed one of the biggest work accidents in our recent history," Erdogan told reporters. "We have mobilised the state's resources in the face of such a large-scale and painful incident." He said figures remained uncertain but mining operators thought 120 workers were still trapped. Erdogan said enquiries would be launched into the causes of the disaster, but remained unrepentant about the government's responsibility. "Such accidents happen," he said.  He compared it to mining accidents in other countries, saying "204 people died in the UK in 1862 and 361 people in 1864. There is something in literature called work accidents."

The death toll by midday had reached 238, most killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. Three days of national mourning have been declared.

Fires and toxic gases were complicating efforts by 400 rescue workers, said Energy Minister Taner Yildiz.

The miners are all thought to have gas masks, but it was not clear how long they would last. Earlier reports said 787 workers were underground when the blast occurred, but many were able to escape."I must say that our hopes about rescue efforts inside are fading," said Yildiz.

Anger could be seen building among the hundreds of distraught family and friends gathered at the site where Erdogan gave a press conference, with some kicking his vehicle and calling for his resignation.

Meanwhile, Turkish police fired tear gas and water cannon at around 800 protesters, mostly students, who marched towards the energy ministry in Ankara, accusing the government and mining industry of negligence, an AFP photographer on the scene said.

Tear gas was also used to disperse around 50 protesters who threw eggs at the mining research directorate in Istanbul, another AFP photographer reported.

Only a handful of miners were seen pulled from the collapsed mine on Wednesday morning, many of them already dead. One emerged wearing an oxygen mask and was immediately rushed to hospital.

As victims were taken away on stretchers, friends and relatives tried to pull away the sheets covering the corpses. Most sat silently on benches, their faces blank with shock, while others scoured a list of the wounded posted up on a wall alongside the name of the hospital they were taken to.

Harun Unzar, a colleague of the missing miners said he had lost a friend previously "but this is enormous.""We are a family and today that family is devastated. We have had very little news and when it does come it's very bad," he said. A security source told AFP there were pockets in the mine, one of which was open so rescuers were able to reach the workers, but the second was blocked with workers trapped inside.

Fire officials were trying to pump clean air into the mine shaft for those who remained trapped some two kilometres (one mile) below the surface and four kilometres from the entrance.Explosions and cave-ins are common in Turkey, particularly in private mines, where safety regulations are often flouted.Turkey's worst mining accident happened in 1992 when 263 workers were killed in a gas explosion in a mine in northern Zonguldak.

A lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) said it submitted a parliamentary motion 20 days ago to investigate work-related accidents at coal mines in Soma but it was rejected by the government.

The CHP's Manisa deputy Ozgur Ozel told local media: "We receive tip-offs every day that workers' lives are under threat. "We lawmakers from Manisa are tired of going to miner funerals."

Tuesday's explosion was believed to have been triggered by a faulty electrical transformer at around 1230 GMT.

Turkey's ministry of labour and social security said the mine was last inspected on March 17 and was found to comply with safety regulations. But Oktay Berrin, a miner, said workers were not protected underground. "There is no security in this mine," he told AFP. "The unions are just puppets and our management only cares about money."

Energy Minister Yildiz promised the government would "not turn a blind eye" to negligence. "We will do whatever necessary, including all administrative and legal steps," he said. The mining company Soma Komur said it had taken maximum measures to ensure safety.

"The accident happened despite maximum safety measures and inspections, but we have been able to take prompt action," it said.

France, Germany and the European Union all offered their condolences and assistance. "It is a tragedy that provokes great emotion," President Francois Hollande said in a statement. "Turkey can count on the support and solidarity of France in this ordeal."

Soma is a key centre for lignite coal mining and is located around 250 kilometres (150 miles) south of Istanbul.