ISTANBUL/ DAMASCUS: A major earthquake of struck southeastern Turkey and northwest Syria, killing more than 1,400 people and injuring hundreds in both countries as buildings collapsed across the region, triggering searches for survivors in the rubble.
The earthquake hit near the Turkish city of Gaziantep at 4:17am local time (01:17 GMT) on Monday, as people were sleeping, at a depth of about 17.9km (11 miles). It was also felt as far as Cyprus, Egypt and Lebanon.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the death toll in the country has risen to 912, while 5,383 people have been wounded. The president said he could not predict how high the casualty numbers would rise.
Authorities have declared a “level 4 alarm” that calls for international assistance. A second earthquake of magnitude 7.6 followed a few hours later amid several aftershocks, the country’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) said, adding that the epicenter of the quake was Elbistan region of Kahramanmaras province.
Search and rescue teams were immediately dispatched to the areas hit by the earthquake, the president said earlier. Turkey’s defence ministry said the country’s armed forces have established an air corridor to enable medical and rescue teams to reach the earthquake-hit areas.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said there had been at least six aftershocks and urged people not to enter damaged buildings due to the risks.
“Our priority is to bring out people trapped under ruined buildings and to transfer them to hospitals,” he said.
Videos shared on social media showed harrowing images of buildings reduced to piles of rubble in several cities in Turkey’s southeast. Broadcasters TRT and Haberturk showed images of people gathered around destroyed buildings in the town of Kahramanmaras, looking for survivors. Other images showed people taking shelter in their cars on the side of snow-covered roads.
In Syria, already devastated by more than 11 years of war, state media reported that at least 326 people have been killed and some 1,000 injured after numerous buildings tumbled down.
In the Syrian capital, Damascus, buildings shook and many people rushed onto the streets in fear.
Meanwhile in the rebel-held parts of Syria, the Syrian Civil Defence and a rescue organization also known as the White Helmets said the death toll there stood to at least 221 people.
Ismail Abdullah, a member of the rescue team told media that the situation was “catastrophic in every sense of the word,” adding that the death toll is likely going to increase dramatically as hundreds of families are still stuck under the rubble.
“The disaster is far greater than our emergency response capacity. Thousands of families are homeless, especially as we are witnessing a snow storm, which increases the tragedy,” said Abdullah. “We are now facing a real catastrophe that we have not experienced for years,” he said.
Alaa Nafi, from Idlib city in Syria, described the earthquake as “extremely horrific and terrifying”.
“Waking up in the middle of the night to the entire building shaking was the worst feeling ever and made it very hard to escape,” he told media, saying the earthquake “felt like ages”.
“Seeing the people with children out on the streets crying in cold weather was heartbreaking, but we all congregated in one area away from all the buildings,” Nafi said. “I certainly wish that no one will ever go through what we went through today,” he added.
President Bashar al-Assad was holding an emergency cabinet meeting to review the damage and discuss the next steps, his office said.
State television showed footage of rescue teams searching for survivors in heavy rain and sleet. Health officials urged the public to help take the injured to hospitals.
The earthquake jolted residents in Lebanon from their beds, shaking buildings for about 40 seconds. Many residents of Beirut left their homes and took to the streets or got in their cars to drive away from buildings.
Martin Mai, professor of geophysics at King Abdullah University, told media that it was one of the largest earthquakes to hit the area in hundreds of years.
“Large damage and local devastation has to be expected,” he said.
“In the past, these earthquakes in Turkey have led to about thousands of casualties owning to building style construction and the sheer size of this event will have profound economic impact as well,” Mai added.
Journalist Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Istanbul, said the earthquake was felt across Turkey from the southern cities as far north as the Black Sea. She added that cities like Gaziantep were crowded, not only with Turkish citizens but Syrian refugees.
“Some international help might be necessary,” she said, noting that poor weather conditions were making the situation worse.
“People are outside. People are scared, and it is very cold.”
Turkey is in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones some 18,000 people were killed in powerful earthquakes that hit the country’s northwest in 1999.
Journalist Resul Serdar, reporting from Istanbul, said the earthquake would likely have an effect on Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections, currently set for May.
“This is a litmus test for the current government of President Erdogan because the economy in the country is already struggling and the prices are going higher and higher,” he said.
“Many experts agree that this is going to be the most difficult election for president Erdogan throughout his political career. And on the other hand, of course, it is an opportunity for the opposition in the country as well, because the management of this crisis is going to be determinative.”
A number of international leaders swiftly offered assistance. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who maintain ties with both Turkey and the Syrian government, sent his condolences and support to both Erdogan and Assad.
French President Emmanuel Macron also said his country was ready to provide emergency aid to Turkey and Syria.
Ten search and rescue team from eight European Union countries have been mobilized to help first responders in Turkey, the European Commission said in a statement.
The units come from Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania. Italy and Hungary have also offered to send teams to Turkey, the commission wrote. (Int’l News Desk)