Rescue teams are striving to reach many people believed to be trapped under rubble following an earthquake in eastern Turkey that killed more than 200 people and injured more than 1,000 people.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, visiting Van province early on Monday, warned that the death toll could rise as more victims were found in the wreckage of shattered buildings.
He said the situation was particularly grave in Ercis, a district of around 100,000 people where more than 55 apartment buildings collapsed as a consequence of Sunday afternoon’s 7.2-magnitude quake.
“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,” Erdogan said in a news conference.
Idris Naim Sahin, Turkey’s interior minister, said on Sunday that 100 people had died in the city of Van and 117 in Ercis district, with another 1,090 injured in the nation’s worst quake since the pair that struck northwestern Turkey in 1999 killing more than 20,000 people.
Turkey has mobilised some 1,275 search and rescue teams from 38 cities as well as 145 ambulances to speed to the aid of the victims. The military said six battalions were also involved in search and rescue efforts.
Six helicopters, including four helicopter ambulances, as well as C-130 military cargo planes were dispatched to the area carrying tents, food and medicine.
‘They can hear voices’
Al Jazeera’s Anita Mcnaught, reporting from Ercis said: “A member of the rescue service told me that they pulled more than 700 people out alive in main Ercis town alone as the earthquake happened.
“But [rescuers] know there are hundreds of people still trapped in the rubble because they can hear their voices. They are using listening devices to help them locate these people.”
Residents joined in the recovery effort, using shovels and other tools as they searched through the rubble and tended to the dying and wounded.
“There are efforts to rescue people but the loss is big. I myself saw three to four dead,” one local man in Ercis told AFP news agency.
Many people spent the night outdoors after the quake which also caused widespread electricity outages, huddling around fires for warmth in near-freezing temperatures.
Turkey’s Kandilli seismological institute said in an initial assessment that between 500 and 1,000 people were estimated to have been killed in the disaster.
At least 200 inmates fled the prison in Van province when the building was damaged in tthe quake, media reports said, adding that 50 of them returned to prison later after seeing their families.
The earthquake also shook buildings in neighbouring Armenia and Iran.
In the Armenian capital of Yerevan, 160km from Ercis, people rushed into the streets in fear but no damage or injuries were reported.
Sunday’s quake caused panic in several Iranian towns close to the Turkish border and caused cracks in buildings in the city of Chaldoran, Iranian state TV reported.
Major geological faultlines cross Turkey and small earthquakes are a near daily occurrence.
A 6.0-magnitude quake in March 2010 last year killed 51 people in eastern Turkey, while a 6.4-magnitude earthquake killed 177 people in the southeastern city of Bingol in 2003.
Turkish authorities are likely to face questions over why they have failed to tighten up construction regulations to make buildings more earthquake-resilient, McNaught said.
“Experts have continuously told the Turkish authorities that the earthquake itself is not what kills people. It is faulty building construction that kills people,” our correspondent said.
“There have been pleas from all quarters – from people working in civil defence, from academics, from architects and urban planners – for successive governments to tighten up the building regulations. But that involves a huge investment of money.”