Turkey and Syria earthquake death toll passes 15,000 as Erdoğan defends response
Turkey’s president has rejected growing criticism of the authorities’ response to Monday’s huge earthquakes, as the death toll passed 15,000 across Turkey and Syria and rescuers continued to pull survivors from the freezing rubble.
Making his first visit to Turkey’s worst-affected region since the 7.8- and 7.5-magnitude quakes hit within hours of each other, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acknowledged early problems with Turkey’s response but said it was now working well.
Related: Turkey and Syria earthquake: what we know so far on day three
“Of course, there are shortcomings. The conditions are clear to see. It’s not possible to be ready for a disaster like this,” Erdoğan said on a visit to Hatay, a southern province that has the highest death toll in the country.
Many Turks have complained of a lack of equipment and support as they waited helplessly next to the rubble of their apartment blocks, unable to rescue relatives and neighbours trapped inside despite sometimes hearing cries for help.
Erdoğan condemned the mounting criticism of rescue efforts. “This is a time for unity, solidarity. I cannot stomach people conducting negative campaigns for political interest,” said the president, who faces an election in May.
Officials have confirmed 12,391 people died in Turkey in the aftermath of the twin quakes. According to Syrian officials and a rescue group in rebel-held north-west Syria, the death toll there has reached 2,992, bringing the combined tally to 15,383.
Experts have predicted the toll in both countries will rise further, and perhaps more than double, as hundreds of collapsed buildings in many cities have become tombs for people who were asleep when the first quake hit in the early morning.
Erdoğan, wary of the impact of any perception his government was failing in its response to Turkey’s most deadly quake since 1939, has declared a state of emergency in the areas concerned and sent in troops to help. He has also promised new housing within a year for those left homeless in the 10 affected provinces, where an estimated 64,000 buildings have been destroyed.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, on Wednesday accused the government of failing to cooperate with local authorities and weakening non-governmental organisations that could help.
“I refuse to look at what is happening as above politics and align with the ruling party. This collapse is exactly the result of systematic profiteering politics,” Kılıçdaroğlu said. “If there is anyone responsible for this process, it is Erdoğan. It is this ruling party that has not prepared the country for an earthquake for 20 years.”
Survivors in southern Turkey and north-west Syria, meanwhile, spent a second night in the freezing cold, many taking refuge in their cars or under blankets in the streets, fearful of going back into potentially seriously weakened buildings.
A winter storm and subzero temperatures have rendered many roads in the region – some of them already severely damaged by the earthquakes – almost impassable, resulting in traffic jams that stretch for miles in some areas. A lack of heavy equipment is also severely hindering the rescue effort.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which has previously said up to 23 million people may be affected by the quakes, on Wednesday announced it was sending a high-level delegation to coordinate its response in both countries, as well as three flights with medical supplies, one of which is already on its way to Istanbul.
“The health needs are tremendous,” said Dr Iman Shankiti, the WHO representative for Syria, with many thousands injured and a healthcare system shattered by civil war. In Turkey, the WHO representative Batyr Berdyklychev said more than 53,000 people were injured.
The organisation’s incident manager for the earthquake, Rob Holden, said many needed support with the “basics of life”, such as clean water and shelter. “We are in real danger of seeing a secondary disaster which may cause harm to more people than the initial disaster,” Holden said.
Many countries have so far pledged aid, and international rescue teams have begun to arrive. For those in the stricken areas, help could not come soon enough. “Where are the tents, where are food trucks?” Melek, 64, in the southern city of Antakya, asked a Reuters reporter.
“We haven’t seen any food distribution here. We survived the earthquake, but we will die here due to hunger or cold here.”
Emergency workers on Wednesday saved several children discovered under a collapsed building in Hatay. “All of a sudden we heard … the voices of three people at the same time,” said one rescuer, Alperen Çetinkaya.
In many parts of Turkey hit by the quakes, shops were closed and there was no heat because gas pipes had been shut to avoid explosions. “My nephew, my sister-in-law and my sister-in-law’s sister are in the ruins,” Semire Çoban, an infant school teacher in Hatay, toldAgence France-Presse.
“They are trapped under the ruins and there is no sign of life. We can’t reach them. We are trying to talk to them, but they are not responding … We are waiting for help. It has been 48 hours now.”
Authorities have said about 13.5 million people have been affected in Turkey. Aid officials were particularly alarmed, however, by the situation in Syria, already devastated by 11 years of a civil war that has hugely complicating relief efforts.
“Even the buildings that haven’t collapsed have been severely damaged. There are now more people under the rubble than those above it,” a resident named Hassan, who did not give his full name, said in the rebel-held town of Jindaris.
“There are 400 to 500 people trapped under each collapsed building with only 10 trying to pull them out, and no machinery,” he told AFP. Mohammed Shibli, of the White Helmets rescue group, said people were “dying every second” and appealed for help.
In Aleppo, Syria’s battle-scarred second city, Youssef, 25, had been waiting by the rubble of a block of flats since Monday for news of his father, mother, brother, sister and nephew. “Nothing is known about them so far,” he said. He talked to them on the phone soon after the quake, he said, but had heard nothing since.
The EU on Wednesday confirmed it would send €3.5m (£3.1m) in aid to Syria, currently subject to sanctions by the bloc, after Damascus officially requested assistance on Wednesday. The EU is also sending an initial €3m in aid to Turkey.
The European commissioner for crisis management, Janez Lenarčič, said the commission was also “encouraging” EU member countries to respond to Damascus’s request for medical supplies and food, while monitoring to ensure that any aid was “not diverted” by Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report