More than 100 dead, hundreds missing after Turkey earthquake [UPDATE]


[UPDATE: 5:22 p.m.]

More than 100 people were confirmed killed and hundreds more feared dead on Sunday when a powerful earthquake hit southeast Turkey, flattening buildings and leaving survivors crying for help from under the rubble.

As a cold night fell, survivors and emergency workers battled to pull hundreds of people believed to be buried under debris in the city of Van and town of Ercis, where a student dormitory collapsed.

Residents in Van joined in a frantic search, using hands and shovels and working under floodlights and flashlights, hearing voices of people buried alive calling from under mounds of broken concrete in pitch darkness and freezing temperatures.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who travelled by helicopter to the area to see firsthand the scale of Turkey’s worst earthquake in a decade, told a nationally televised news conference at least 138 people had been killed—93 in Van city centre and 45 in Ercis. The toll was expected to rise.

“The most important problem now is in the villages close to Van city centre because the buildings are made of adobe. They are more vulnerable to quakes. I must say that almost all buildings in such villages are destroyed.”

He said people were still trapped under rubble but gave no figure. An official at the Van provincial crisis centre told Reuters up to 600 people had been injured and 300-400 were missing, feared buried beneath rubble of collapsed buildings.

The quake struck at 1041 GMT.

More accounts of dead bodies and destruction emerged from smaller settlements across the remote area near the Iranian border, most of them left without electricity or phone access.

“The death toll is rising. Rescue teams are taking out dead bodies all the time,” Reuters photographer Osman Orsal said in Ercis, a town of 100,000 some 100 km (60 miles) north of Van where a student dormitory collapsed.

In Van, a bustling and ancient city on a lake ringed by snow-capped mountains and with a population of 1 million, cranes were used to shift rubble of a crumpled six-storey apartment block where bystanders said 70 people were trapped.

“We heard cries and groaning from underneath the debris, we are waiting for the rescue teams to arrive,” Halil Celik told Reuters as he stood beside the ruins of a building that had collapsed before his eyes.

“All of a sudden, a quake tore down the building in front of me. All the bystanders, we all ran to the building and rescued two injured people from the ruins.”

At another site, three teenagers were believed trapped under a collapsed building. People clambered over the masonry, shouting: “Is there anyone there?”

An elderly rescue worker sat sobbing, his exhausted face covered in dust. Police tried to keep onlookers back. Ambulance crews sat waiting to help anyone dragged out of the debris.

There were reports of more bodies being pulled from rubble in hamlets outside Van. One village chief told NTV broadcaster: “Nobody has reached us, we have received no medical aid, the tents they sent are plain canvas. We are freezing.”

No information was available on the fate of a 10th century Armenian church on Akdamar Island—one of the last relics of Armenian culture in Turkey, which was recently reopened by the government as a peace gesture towards Armenia.

Kandilli Observatory general manager Mustafa Erdik told a news conference he estimated hundreds of lives had been lost. “It could be 500 or 1,000,” he added. He said he based his estimate on the 7.2 magnitude of the earthquake, the strongest since 1999, and the quality of construction.

A nurse at a public hospital in Ercis said hospital workers were attending the wounded in the hospital garden because the building was badly damaged.

“We can’t count dead or injured because we’re not inside the hospital. There should be more than 100 dead bodies left next to the hospital. We left them there because it’s dark and we didn’t want to step on bodies,” Eda Ekizoglu told CNN Turk.

The cabinet was expected to discuss the quake on Monday.

“A lot of buildings collapsed, many people were killed, but we don’t know the number. We are waiting for emergency help, it’s very urgent,” Zulfukar Arapoglu, mayor of Ercis, told news broadcaster NTV.

“We need tents urgently and rescue teams. We don’t have any ambulances, and we only have one hospital. We have many killed and injured.”

Turkey’s Red Crescent said one of its teams was helping to rescue people from a student residence in Ercis. It had sent 1,200 tents, more than 4,000 blankets, stoves and food supplies, along with two mobile bakeries.

More than 70 aftershocks rocked the area, further unsettling residents who ran into the streets when the initial quake struck. Television pictures showed rooms shaking and furniture toppling as people ran from one building.

Students gathered around a camp fire in Van’s centre and told journalists bread prices on the black market had more than quadrupled. Dazed survivors wandered past vehicles crushed by falling masonry.

Anatolian news agency reported that 200 prisoners escaped from Van’s prison after the quake, but 50 returned after seeing their families.

The quake’s epicentre was at the village of Tabanli, 20 km north of Van city, Kandilli said.

International offers of aid poured in from NATO, China, Japan, the United States, Azerbaijan, European countries and Israel, whose ties with Ankara have soured since Israeli commandoes killed nine Turks during a raid on an aid flotilla bound for the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip in 2010.

Erdogan thanked al the governments who had offered help, but said Turkey could handle the disaster relief efforts without assistance.

Serzh Sarksyan, the president of Turkey’s longtime regional rival Armenia, phoned Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul to offer his condolences.

Major geological fault lines cross Turkey and there are small earthquakes almost daily. Two large quakes in 1999 killed more than 20,000 people in northwest Turkey.

An earthquake struck Van province in November 1976, with 5,291 confirmed dead. Two people were killed and 79 injured in May when an earthquake shook Simav in northwest Turkey.

Additional reporting by Seda Sezer, Ece Toksabay and Seyhmus Cakan, writing by Ibon Villelabeitia and Daren Butler; editing by Andrew Roche and Matthew Jones

Turkey quake kills at least 279, hundreds missing [UPDATE]


[UPDATE: 10:43 a.m.]

Rescuers searched the rubble of collapsed buildings Monday for survivors and victims of a major earthquake that killed at least 279 people and injured more than 1,300 in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey.

Rescue and relief efforts focused on the city of Van and the town of Ercis, 100 km (60 miles) to the north, but hundreds were also feared dead in remote villages of mud-brick houses after Sunday’s 7.2 magnitude quake, Turkey’s strongest in a decade.

Desperate survivors cried for help beneath heaps of smashed concrete and twisted metal, some using mobile phones to tell friends they were alive, as earth-moving machines and troops raced against time in Van and Ercis.

Thousands of people made homeless by the quake were forced to spend a second night outdoors in the hilly, windswept Van region, enduring near-freezing temperatures. Families huddled round open fires that glowed in the dark. Some stayed in tents put up on soccer pitches, living on handouts from aid agencies.

The U.N. disaster agency said almost 1,000 buildings had collapsed, many of them poorly built. A Red Crescent spokesman said the agency was preparing to provide refuge for as many as 40,000 people, though it was so far impossible to tell how many would need shelter.

Some residents of Van and outlying villages complained of a lack of government assistance, despite the dispatch of troops, mobile kitchens and up to 13,000 tents.

“We have to fit 37 people in one tent,” said Giyasettin Celen, a 29-year-old who lost three family members in Dogonu Koyu, a village beside Lake Van where he said 15 people died.

“Our lost ones were carried like animals, on top of each other, in a transport van. Our main source of income here is livestock breeding, but we don’t have anywhere to keep them. We will have to sell them now,” he said.

Throughout the day, rescue workers pulled people out alive.

“Be patient, be patient,” rescuers in Ercis told a whimpering boy pinned under a concrete slab with the lifeless hand of an adult, a wedding ring on one finger, visible just in front of his face.

A Reuters photographer saw a woman and her daughter being freed from beneath a concrete slab in the wreckage of a six-storey building.

“I’m here, I’m here,” the woman, named Fidan, cried out hoarsely. Talking to her regularly while working for more than two hours to find a way through, rescuers cut through the slab, first sighting the daughter’s foot, before freeing them.

In Van, an ancient city of one million on a lake ringed by snow-capped mountains, cranes shifted rubble from a collapsed six-storey apartment block where 70 people were feared trapped.

One woman, standing beside a wrecked four-storey building, told a rescue worker she had spoken to her friend on her mobile phone six hours after the quake trapped her in the wreckage.

“She’s my friend and she called me to say that she’s alive and she’s stuck in the rubble near the stairs of the building,” said her friend, a fellow teacher. “She told me she was wearing red pajamas,” she said, standing with distraught relatives begging the rescue workers to hurry.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan flew to Van to assess the scale of the disaster. It is a quake-prone area that is a hotbed of activity for Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants.

Erdogan said he feared for the fate of villages with houses made of mud brick, saying: “Almost all buildings in such villages are destroyed.”

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said the death toll had reached 279, with 1,300 injured, and more were unaccounted for.

The quake brought fresh torment to impoverished southeast Turkey, where PKK militants fighting a decades-long insurgency killed 24 Turkish troops south of Van last week.

The area it struck, near the border with Iran, is remote and mountainous, with long distances between villages and people who live off stock-raising, arable farming and trading.

The hardest-hit town was Ercis, a town of 100,000, where 55 buildings crumpled, including a student dormitory.

At one collapsed four-storey building, firemen from the major southeastern city of Diyarbakir were trying to reach four missing children. Aid workers carried two large black bags, one apparently containing a child’s body, to an ambulance. An old woman wrapped in a headscarf walked alongside sobbing.

A distressed man paced back and forth before running toward the rescue workers on top of the rubble. “That’s my nephew’s house,” he sobbed as workers tried to hold him back.

The Red Crescent has delivered 5,000 tents to Ercis alone and a tent city has been set up at Ercis stadium. But residents said tents were being given only to relatives of police and soldiers, a possible source of tension if confirmed.

“The villages have not received any help yet. Instead of making a show, politicians should be visiting them. The Turkish military says they sent soldiers, where are they?” said a municipality official in Van who did not want to be named.

Ibrahim Baydar, a 40-year-old tradesman from Van, accused the government in Ankara of holding back aid. “All the nylon tents are in the black market now. We cannot find any. People are queuing for them. No tents were given to us whatsoever.”

Rescue efforts were hampered by power outages after the quake toppled electricity lines to towns and villages.

More than 200 aftershocks have jolted the region since the quake, lasting around 25 seconds, struck at 1041 GMT Sunday.

“I just felt the whole earth moving and I was petrified. It went on for ages. And the noise, you could hear this loud, loud noise,” said Hakan Demirtas, 32, a builder who was working on a construction site in Van at the time.

“My house is ruined,” he said, sitting on a low wall after spending the night in the open. “I am still afraid, I’m in shock. I have no future, there is nothing I can do.”

The Red Crescent said about 100 experts had reached the earthquake zone to coordinate rescue and relief operations. Sniffer dogs had joined the quest for survivors.

Major geological fault lines cross Turkey, where small tremors occur almost daily. Two large quakes in 1999 killed more than 20,000 people in the northwest.

The quake had no impact on Turkish financial markets when they opened Monday.

In Van, construction worker Sulhattin Secen, 27, said he had at first mistaken the rumble of the quake for a car crash.

“Then the ground beneath me started moving up and down as if I was standing in water. May God help us. It’s like life has stopped. What are people going to do?”

Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Istanbul; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia, Simon Cameron-Moore and Daren Butler; Editing by Tim Pearce

Turkey rejects earthquake aid offers, including Israel’s


Turkey has rejected all international aid, including an Israeli offer, in the wake of a strong earthquake that collapsed buildings and left hundreds dead.

Sunday’s temblor, which measured 7.3 on the Richter scale and was centered in southeastern Turkey, was felt in central Tel Aviv, Haaretz reported. At least 239 people are confirmed dead, with many others reportedly trapped in collapsed buildings.

“The State of Israel shares in your sorrow following the earthquake that has claimed victims from among your people,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said Sunday in a call to Turkish President Abdullah Gul.  “I speak as a man, as a Jew and as an Israeli who remembers, and is well aware of, the depth of the historic relations between our two peoples and thus I send the condolences of the entire nation to the families of those who lost their lives.  At this difficult time, the State of Israel is ready to render any assistance that may be required anywhere in Turkey, at any time.”

Gul thanked Peres for the telephone call, the expression of condolences and the offer of assistance, according to the president’s office, and said that he hoped Turkish search and rescue could handle the emergency alone. Diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey are now nearly nonexistent.

Israel’s Defense Ministry and Foreign Minister had been in contact with Turkish officials Sunday in order to offer assistance. An Israel Defense Forces search and rescue delegation is prepared to leave for Turkey if it is called upon, according to reports.

Diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey have deteriorated since nine Turkish nationals, including a Turkish-American dual citizen, were killed in May 2010 during an Israeli raid on a Turkish-flagged aid flotilla attempting to break Israel’s naval blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Turkey has demanded an Israeli apology for the deaths and compensation to the victims’ families.

Israel has offered its “regret” for the deaths, and has said that its naval commandos fired in self-defense. Relations had been going downhill since the 2008-09 Gaza war.

Turkey sent several firefighting airplanes to Israel last December to help battle the massive Carmel Forest fire.

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