Several rescue operations suspended in Syria and Turkey as chances of survival diminish
Security risks put a handful of search and rescue operations on hold on Saturday, as the death toll of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey surpassed 25,000.
Germany and Austria have suspended rescue operations in Turkey, citing security concerns.
Meanwhile, rescue efforts in the rebel-controlled areas in north and northwest Syria have ended, announced volunteer organization Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, on Friday.
After searching for 108 hours, the group said it believes no one trapped under the rubble is still alive.
Syria has been ravaged by civil war since 2011, and 4 million people were already reliant on humanitarian aid in the worst-affected parts of rebel-controlled country before Monday’s disaster.
As many as 5.3 million people in Syria could have been affected by the quake and be in need of shelter support, according to preliminary data from the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which has been trying to distribute supplies to vulnerable populations.
However, the country’s political set-up complicated rescue efforts, with some of its most impacted areas controlled by the internationally-sidelined, heavily-sanctioned regime, others by Turkish-backed and US-backed opposition forces, Kurdish rebels and Sunni Islamist fighters.
It took three days after the quake struck for the first UN convoy to cross through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, which is the only humanitarian aid corridor between Turkey and Syria.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma visited rescue teams and civilians in affected regions on Saturday, including injured survivors in a hospital in the city of Latakia.
On Friday, he had criticized the lack of humanitarian aid from Western countries, stating that they “have no regard for the human condition.” The Syrian government approved sending aid into the rebel-held territories Friday but did not provide a specific timeline.
Rescue work could take two to three years to complete in Turkey, but five to 10 years to just get underway in Syria, according to Caroline Holt, director of disasters, climate and crises at the International Federation of the Red Cross.
Syrian-American actor Jay Abdo expressed frustration on Saturday, telling CNN: “Earthquakes, they have no borders. So why do borders and politics deprive Syrian civilians in the northwest of the country from their human rights to be rescued?”
He called on the international community to “act immediately” as “there’s no time” and “civilians are not receiving any support, aid or attention.”
The World Health Organization’s director-general arrived in Syria’s earthquake-hit Aleppo city on Saturday on a plane carrying more than $290,000 worth of trauma emergency and surgical kits.
The extent of devastation is “unprecedented,” according to Belit Tasdemir, UN liaison officer at AKUT Search and Rescue Association, who was working in Turkey.
He told CNN on Saturday that “freezing” temperatures and “extreme fatigue” was beginning to affect rescue workers as they approach the end of the rescue window and the probability of finding survivors becomes lower.
Some astonishing rescues still provide a glimmer of hope, however.
Sezai Karabas and his young daughter were found alive in Gaziantep, southern Turkey, 132 hours after the earthquake struck.
A 70-year-old survivor, a woman named Menekse Tabak, was pulled out from the rubble in the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras, 121 hours after the quake hit.
Yet attempts at search and rescue have also been hampered in Turkey.
The German Federal Agency for Technical Relief stopped its rescue and relief work due to security concerns in the Hatay region, the organization said in a statement Saturday.
German rescue operators, who had been working in coordination with Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD), said they “will resume their work as soon as AFAD deems the situation to be safe.”
The Austrian Army made a similar decision, citing “increasing aggression between groups in Turkey,” but said they will “keep our rescue and recovery forces ready.”
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that those looting and committing other crimes would be punished, and that university dorms would be used to house victims made homeless, with classes going online.
United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths described the earthquake in southern Turkey and northwestern Syria as the “worst event in 100 years” to hit the regions, and said that a “clear plan” to give “an appeal for a three-month operation” would be set out on either Sunday or Monday.