Rescuers battle to find Turkey quake survivors, save baby


Rescuers pulled a two-week-old baby girl alive from the arms of her mother buried under a collapsed building on Tuesday as a search continued for survivors from a quake in eastern Turkey that killed at least 366 people and left thousands homeless.

Hope of finding people alive under tons of rubble was fading with every passing hour as rescuers pulled out more bodies and thousands of residents slept for a second night in crowded tents or huddled around fires and in cars across a region rattled by aftershocks in Van province, near the Iranian border.

With victims accusing the central government of being slow in delivering aid to a region inhabited mostly by minority Kurds, Ankara said it was sending more tents and blankets.

“We have no tents, everybody is living outdoors. Van has collapsed psychologically, life has stopped. Tens of thousands are on the streets. Everybody is in panic,” Kemal Balci, a construction worker said as he awaited news on friends injured in the quake at a hospital in the city of Van.

“Aid has been arriving late. Van has been reduced to zero. We have no jobs, no bread, no water and there are nine members in my family. If the government doesn’t give a hand to Van it will be like Afghanistan. Van has been pushed back 100 years.”

The 7.2-magnitude quake, Turkey’s most powerful in a decade, is one more affliction for Kurds, the dominant ethnic group in impoverished southeast Turkey, where more than 40,000 people have been killed in a three-decade-long separatist insurgency.

On Monday, Turkish tanks and armored vehicles crossed into northern Iraq headed in the direction of a Kurdish militant camp as part of cross-border operations in the wake of an attack last week by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters that killed 24 Turkish soldiers.

Quake rescue efforts focused on Ercis, a town of 100,000 that was worst hit, and the provincial capital Van, which has a population of one million.

Emergency workers extracted the infant girl alive from the wreckage on Tuesday, two days after it was buried with its mother under an apartment block.

The mother was clutching the child to her chest when the were reached by rescuers, who set about rescuing the mother and a grandmother who were also still alive.

“We’re going to get them out soon,” a rescuer assured the other grandmother, whose eyes brimmed with tears of joy over the survival of her grandchild.

Elsewhere, exhausted workers used machinery, jackhammers, shovels, pick axes and bare hands to comb through rubble. Every so often, they would shout for silence and generators and diggers would stop, straining to hear voices under the wreckage. Seconds later the drone of the machinery would start again.

Officials said 12,000 more tents would reach Van on Tuesday after complaints that entire families were cramming into tents and television images showed desperate men pushing each other roughly to grab tents from the back of a Red Crescent truck.

The Turkish Red Crescent has said it was preparing temporary shelter for about 40,000 people, although there were no reliable figures for the homeless. Many residents spent the night outside fearing any return to their damaged homes.

Turkish authorities have been criticized for failing to ensure that some of the neediest, particularly in villages, received tents as night temperatures plummeted.

“Life has become hell. We are outside, the weather is cold. There are no tents,” said Emin Kayram, 53, sitting by a camp fire in Ercis after spending the night with his family of eight in a van parked nearby.

His nephew was trapped in the debris of a building behind him, where rescue workers had been digging through the night.

“He is 18, a student. He is still stuck in there. This is the third day but you can’t lose hope. We have to wait here.”

How fast Ankara manages to deliver aid and long-term relief to the survivors might have political consequences in a region plagued by poverty and the Kurdish insurgency, analysts said.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who secured a third consecutive term with a strong majority at a June election, has pledged to push reforms in parliament and rewrite the constitution to address long-time Kurdish grievances in an effort to end violence.

“If we want to win the hearts of our brothers of Kurdish origin, we should act now. We should beat the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with this approach, which is more effective than arms,” leading commentator Mehmet Ali Birand wrote.

Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Administration said on Tuesday the death toll had risen to 366, with 1,301 people injured. The overnight death toll stood at 279.

The death count was likely to rise further as many people were still missing and 2,262 buildings have collapsed.

“It was like judgment day,” said Mesut Ozan Yilmaz, 18, who survived for 32 hours under the rubble of a tea house where he had been passing time with friends.

Unhurt but lying on a hospital bed under a thick blanket, his face blackened by dust and dirt, Yilmaz gave a chilling account to CNN Turk of how he survived by diving under a table.

“The space we had was so narrow. People were fighting for more space to survive,” Yilmaz said. “I rested my head on a dead man’s foot. I know I would be dead now if I had let myself go psychologically.”

The government has received offers of aid from dozens of countries around the world, including from former ally Israel, but has so far accepted aid only from Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Iran.

The center of Van resembled a ghost town with no lights in the streets or buildings. Hardly any people could be seen.

The sense of dislocation was even greater in Ercis. With no homes to go back to, thousands of people, mostly men, paced the streets, stopping to look at the destruction or whenever there was some commotion at a rescue site.

At one collapsed building on the main road through Ercis, exhausted rescue workers shouted at crowds of men pushing forward to catch a glimpse as efforts were made to free a woman’s corpse from the rubble.

“Get back. Are you not human? Show some respect. Do we not have any honor or pride?” one rescue worker yelled. Crowds formed at one demolished building where bystanders said a trapped boy had made contact by mobile phone.

As a rescue team dug at the rubble, one man screamed at the workers: “Where were you last night? I told you last night there were people here.”

Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia, Daren Butler and Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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.

Netanyahu offers quake aid to Turkey


Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Monday to offer condolences for those killed in a devastating earthquake and said the Jewish state was ready to help, officials of both countries said.

Relations between Israel and Turkey have been frayed since Israeli commandos killed nine Turks during a raid on an aid flotilla bound for the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip in 2010.

Sources at Erdogan’s office said Netanyahu reminded Erdogan that Turkey sent fire-fighting planes in December last year to help Israel battle a brush fire that killed 41 people and said Israel was now ready to help Turkey.

At least 279 people were killed and more than 1,300 wounded when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey on Sunday.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the call between the two men took place.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed his condolences to the victims of the terrible earthquake and offered Israel’s help in dealing with the tragedy. The Turkish prime minister thanked him for his words and for his offer to help,” the official said.

It was too early to know if the exchange would lead to a rapprochement. Turkey has demanded Israel apologise and pay compensation for the killings and lift the blockade on Gaza as a condition to normalise ties with its former strategic ally.

Tensions between the two U.S. allies rose last month when Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador after Israel refused to apologise and said its marines acted in self-defence in clashes with pro-Palestinian activists on one of the vessels.

Israel has sent rescue teams to quake-prone Turkey in the past after earthquakes struck.

Turkey has received offers of assistance from countries as far as China and Pakistan but so far has accepted aid only from Iran and Azerbaijan.

Earlier on Monday, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc denied Turkey had declined an offer of aid from Israel.

“Our ties with Israel may not be at desired levels, but it’s out of the question to refuse humanitarian offers,” Arinc told a news conference.

“Turkey is thankful and respects all countries who offered help,” he said, but cautioned that “if aid from all countries arrived in Van it would be chaos”.

Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Michael Roddy and Roger Atwood

Israel prepares earthquake aid for Turkey


Israel has offered to send aid to Turkey following a strong earthquake that has collapsed buildings and reportedly left hundreds dead.

The scope of the aid in response to the earthquake that hit southeastern Turkey early Sunday will depend on Turkey’s willingness to accept it, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Diplomatic relations between the two countries are now nearly nonexistent.

The temblor, which measured 7.3, was felt in central Tel Aviv, Haaretz reported.

Israel’s Defense Ministry also has been in contact with Turkish officials. An Israel Defense Forces delegation is preparing to leave for Turkey as soon as it receives clearance, 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.

Ehud Barak says Turkey declined Israeli aid offer


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Sunday Ankara has declined aid offered by the Jewish state after an earthquake struck southeast Turkey.

“I am under the impression the Turks do not want our help,” Barak told Channel 2 News.

“Right now (their answer) is negative but if they see they need more aid and don’t have it, or if they rethink it, we have made the offer and remain prepared (to help),” he said.

Relations between Israel and Turkey, once close strategic allies, were frayed by a 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla in which nine Turks were killed.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Louise Ireland

Turkey: no call yet for foreign aid after quake


Turkey has not yet made any call for international assistance after Sunday’s powerful earthquake in which many people were feared killed, a Foreign Ministry official said.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Turkey had received offers of assistance from dozens of countries, including Israel, and so far had declined help from all of them.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said earlier that Ankara had declined aid offered by the Jewish state after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck southeast Turkey.

Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Tim Pearce