Rescuers toil on in rubble of Turkey and Syria, survivors ever harder to find
- Death toll 24,617 in Turkey, over 3,500 in Syria.
- Hundreds of thousands homeless in middle of winter.
- EU envoy rejects accusations of shirking Syria aid.
Rescuers pulled a survivor from earthquake rubble on Sunday, six days after one of the worst natural disasters to hit parts of Syria and Turkey, as the death toll exceeded 28,000 and looked set to rise further.
Facing questions over his handling of Turkey’s most devastating earthquake since 1939, President Tayyip Erdogan promised to start rebuilding within weeks, saying hundreds of thousands of buildings were wrecked.
In Syria, the disaster hit hardest in the rebel-held northwest, leaving many homeless for a second time after they were displaced by a decade-old civil war, though the region has received little aid compared to government-held areas.
The European Union’s envoy to Syria urged Damascus not to politicise issues of humanitarian aid, rejecting accusations that the bloc had failed to provide sufficient help to Syrians after Monday’s 7.8-magnitude quake and major aftershocks.
“It is absolutely unfair to be accused of not providing aid, when actually we have constantly been doing exactly that for over a decade and we are doing so much more even during the earthquake crisis,” Dan Stoenescu told Reuters.
In Turkey’s southeastern province of Hatay, a Romanian rescue team carried a 35-year-old man named Mustafa down a pile of debris from a building, broadcaster CNN Turk said, about 149 hours after the quake.
“His health is good, he was talking,” said one of the rescuers. “He was saying, ‘Get me out of here quickly, I’ve got claustrophobia’.”
The team placed the man, lying on a stretcher and wrapped in a gold foil blanket in a waiting ambulance, before hugging each other.
‘Looters with knives’
On Saturday, Gizem, a rescue worker from the southeastern province of Sanliurfa, said she had seen looters in the city of Antakya. “We cannot intervene much, as most of the looters carry knives.”
Police and soldiers fanned out to keep order and help with traffic, rescues and food handouts.
Turkey said about 80,000 people were in hospital, with more than 1 million in temporary shelters.
With basic infrastructure in ruins, survivors feared disease.
“If people don’t die here under the rubble, they’ll die from injuries. If not, they will die from infection,” said Gizem. “There is no toilet here. It is a big problem.”
UN aid chief Martin Griffiths described the earthquake as the region’s worst event in 100 years, predicting the death toll would at least double.
He praised Turkey’s response, saying his experience was that disaster victims were always disappointed by early relief efforts.
The earthquake hit as Erdogan faces a national election scheduled for June. Even before the disaster, his popularity was falling due to soaring inflation and a slumping Turkish currency.
The vote was already being seen as Erdogan’s toughest challenge in two decades in power. He has called for solidarity and condemned “negative” politicking.
Some people affected by the quake and opposition politicians have accused the government of slow and inadequate relief efforts early on, and critics have questioned why the army, which played a key role after a 1999 earthquake, was not brought in sooner.
Erdogan has acknowledged problems, such as the challenge of delivering aid despite damaged transport links, but said the situation had been brought under control.
Prosecutors investigating the soundness of buildings that collapsed have ordered the detention or arrest of as many as 95 people, the state-owned Anadolu news agency said.
The quake ranks as the world’s seventh deadliest natural disaster this century, its toll approaching the 31,000 from a quake in neighbouring Iran in 2003.
It has killed 24,617 inside Turkey, and more than 3,500 in Syria, where tolls have not been updated since Friday.
In Syria’s government-controlled city of Aleppo, World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the disaster as heartbreaking as he supervised some relief distribution and promised more.
Western nations have largely shunned President Bashar al-Assad during the war that began in 2011.