Fewer and fewer survivors in earthquake rubble in Turkey and Syria

By Maya Gebeily, Ali Kucukgocmen and Khalil Ashawi

ANTAKYA, Turkey/JANDARIS, Syria (Reuters) – Exhausted rescuers pulled a dwindling number of survivors from earthquake debris on Saturday, five days after one of the region’s worst natural disasters, which claimed the lives of nearly 26,000 and threatened to climb much higher Turkey and Syria.

Some rescue operations were halted after reports of looting.

President Tayyip Erdogan raised questions about his handling of Turkey’s most devastating earthquake since 1939 and vowed to start reconstruction within weeks after saying hundreds of thousands of buildings had been destroyed.

In Syria, the disaster hit the rebel-held north-west hardest, leaving many homeless for a second time, already displaced by the ongoing civil war.

In the southern Turkish city of Antakya, body bags lay in the streets and residents wore masks to ward off the smell of death as they joined rescuers who had yet to reach some buildings.

“There’s chaos, rubble and bodies everywhere,” said one whose group had worked overnight to reach a university teacher who called them out of the rubble.

By morning she had stopped answering.

In Kahramanmaras, near the epicenter in Turkey, rescue operations were less visible amid the shattered concrete mounds of collapsed houses and apartment blocks.

But inside one building, rescuers dug between concrete slabs to reach a still-living five-year-old girl, lifted her onto a stretcher wrapped in foil, and chanted “God is Greatest.”

Only a few others were brought out alive on Saturday.

Two German rescue organizations halted work, citing reports of clashes between groups of people and gunfire.

An Austrian team also stopped work for a short time.


Gizem, a rescue worker from the southeastern province of Sanliurfa, said she saw looters in Antakya. “There’s not much we can do since most of the looters carry knives,” she said.

Police and soldiers were on duty Saturday to maintain order and also assisted with traffic, rescue and food distribution.

Turkey said about 80,000 people were in hospital, with more than 1 million in shelters.

Outside Antakya, workers at a mass grave lowered body bags into a freshly dug trench where a mechanical excavator covered them with earth. About 80 sacks were waiting for the burial.

New graves also covered a hillside outside of Gaziantep, some with flowers or small Turkish flags flapping in the wind. A woman broke down in sobs next to one of the graves as a boy tried to comfort her.

Survivors feared disease as basic infrastructure was destroyed.

“If people don’t die under the rubble here, they die from injuries, if not, they die from infection. There is no toilet here. That’s a big problem,” said paramedic Gizem.

UN Secretary General Martin Griffiths described the earthquake as the worst event in the region in 100 years. He praised Turkey’s response and said it was his experience that relief efforts always disappointed people in disaster areas early on.

He predicted the death toll would at least double.

The disaster happened as Erdogan was preparing for national elections scheduled for June. His popularity has already plummeted amid the rising cost of living and a collapsing Turkish currency.

Even before the quake, the vote was considered Erdogan’s toughest challenge in two decades in power. Since the disaster, he has called for solidarity and condemned “negative” politics.

People in the quake zone and opposition politicians have early accused the government of slow and inadequate aid, and critics said the army, which played a key role after a 1999 earthquake, failed to step in quickly enough.

Erdogan has acknowledged some problems, particularly getting aid to a region where transport links were damaged, but said the situation was subsequently brought under control.

Questions are also asked about the solidity of buildings. Prosecutors in Adana ordered the arrest of 62 people in an investigation into collapsed buildings, while prosecutors requested the arrest of 33 people in Diyarbakir for the same reason, state-run Anadolu News Agency reported.


Monday’s 7.8-magnitude quake, with multiple powerful aftershocks in Turkey and Syria, is ranked as the world’s seventh-deadliest natural disaster this century, approaching the 31,000 deaths of a tremor in neighboring Iran in 2003.

With a death toll of 22,327 in Turkey so far, it is the country’s deadliest earthquake since 1939. More than 3,500 have died in Syria, where the toll has not been updated since Friday.

In the opposition-held North West, it was a terrible déjà vu for many, once uprooted by war.

“The first day we slept on the street. The second day we slept in our cars. Then we slept in other people’s houses,” said Ramadan Sleiman, 28, whose family had fled eastern Syria to the town of Jandaris, who was badly damaged in the quake.

In the government-controlled Syrian city of Aleppo, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the disaster as heartbreaking as he oversaw the distribution of some relief supplies and promised more.

A shipment of Italian relief supplies destined for government-held parts of Syria landed in Beirut, Italy’s envoy to Damascus said, as part of the first European earthquake relief effort for the government.

Western nations largely shunned President Bashar al-Assad during the war that began in 2011.

The Northwest has received little aid compared to dozens of planeloads that have arrived in Syrian government-controlled areas — many of them from Arab countries, Russia, Iran, India and Bangladesh, according to Syrian state media.

(Additional reporting by Umit Bektas in Antakya, Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Ece Toksabay and Huseyin Hayatsever in Adana, Jonathan Spicer, Daren Butler, Yesim Dikmen and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul and Timur Azhari in Beirut; writing by Clarence Fernandez, Angus McDowall and Dominic Evans edit by Frances Kerry and Andrew Cawthorne)


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