The death toll from a strong earthquake that rocked eastern Turkey has climbed to 29 with more than 1,400 people injured, emergency officials say.
- Turkey’s health minister has warned the number of dead could increase further
- The earthquake was reportedly felt in neighbouring countries Georgia and Lebanon
- Drones have been deployed in rescue and communications operations
The massive quake shook Elazig province, about 550 kilometres east of the capital Ankara, late on Friday (local time).
Various earthquake monitoring centres gave magnitudes ranging from 6.5 to 6.8. The main quake was followed by more than 462 aftershocks, 12 of which had magnitudes over 4.
“Our houses collapsed … we cannot go inside them,” said a 32-year-old man from the town of Sivrice, epicentre of the quake which struck shortly before 9:00pm.
Mosques, schools, sports halls and student dormitories were opened for hundreds who left their homes after the quake.
Eighteen people were killed in Elazig and four more in the neighbouring province of Malatya, said Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Authority (AFAD), adding 1,031 others were injured and in hospitals in the region.
It said rescue efforts were underway at three different sites in Elazig.
“We have approximately 30 residents under the wreckage in Elazig,” said Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, as quoted by state-run news agency Anadolu.
Teams worked through the night with their hands, drills and mechanical diggers to remove bricks and plaster from the ruins in the province where the overnight temperature dipped to -8 degrees Celsius.
Mr Koca said search and rescue efforts were ongoing and the death toll could continue to rise.
Media reports suggested the earthquake was felt far away, including in the neighbouring countries of Georgia, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
A ‘test’ for Turkey: Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said all measures were being taken to “ensure that the earthquake that occurred in Elazig and was felt in many provinces is overcome with the least amount of loss.”
He also attended a funeral for a woman and her son killed in the quake, which he described as a “test” for Turkey.
“We are doing everything we can as the state and nation, and we will continue to do so. Our efforts at all rescue sites will continue,” he said at the funeral, adding state house developer TOKI would make sure no one was left “hungry or in the open”.
“The earthquake was very severe, we desperately ran out [of our home],” Emre Gocer told Anadolu as he sheltered with his family at a sports hall in the town of Sivrice in Elazig.
“We don’t have a safe place to stay right now.”
Mr Erdogan said steel-framed houses would be rapidly built in the region to provide housing for displaced residents.
AFAD warned residents not to return to damaged buildings because of the danger of further aftershocks. It said beds, blankets and tents were sent to the area, where some people sheltered in sports halls.
Turkey’s Kizilay aid group also sent food, heaters and other materials to the region.
Officials had identified 514 heavily damaged and 409 lightly damaged buildings in Elazig and Malatya, AFAD said in a statement. It said there were also 72 collapsed structures in the two provinces.
On Friday night, Interior Minister Soylu described the quake as a “Level 3” incident according to the country’s emergency response plan, meaning it called for a national response but did not require international help.
Lessons from 1999 quake inform response
Emergency teams and rescue equipment were sent from other provinces to Elazig after the quake, with thousands of rescuers and medical personnel on the ground during rescue efforts.
Flag-carrier Turkish Airlines started additional flights to Elazig from Ankara and Istanbul to help transport rescuers.
Drones were deployed in search operations and to communicate between provinces.
The Turkish Red Crescent said it had mobilised teams to the affected areas and had a crisis desk in Ankara working “around the clock”.
“Our biggest hope is that the death toll does not rise,” Turkey’s parliamentary speaker Mustafa Sentop said.
Turkey sits on top of two major fault lines and has a history of powerful earthquakes.
Two strong earthquakes struck northwest Turkey in 1999, killing around 18,000 people and destroying the homes of 500,000.
In 2011, an earthquake struck the eastern city of Van and the town of Ercis, some 100 km to the north, killing at least 523 people.