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Dramatic rescues as Turkey-Syria quake toll nears 25,000

Dramatic rescues as Turkey-Syria quake toll nears 25,000
February 11, 2023 Web Desk

KAHRAMANMARAS, Turkey (AFP) - Rescuers pulled children and the elderly from the rubble Saturday as miraculous survival stories coincided with hasty mass burials five days after an earthquake devastated parts of Turkey and Syria, leaving almost 25,000 dead.

Tens of thousands of local and international rescue workers are still scouring through flattened neighbourhoods despite freezing weather that has compounded the misery of millions now in desperate need of aid.

However, amid the destruction and death, survivors continue to emerge. "Is the world there?" asked 70-year-old Menekse Tabak as she was pulled out from the rubble in the southern city of Kahramanmaras -- the epicentre of Monday's 7.8-magnitude tremor -- to applause and cries praising God, according to a video shared on state broadcaster TRT Haber.

In southern Hatay, a two-year-old girl was found alive 123 hours after the quake, reported the Hurriyet daily online, adding to numerous children saved long after the disaster, and a pregnant woman who was found on Friday.

Meanwhile, in southern Turkey, families clutched each other in grief at a cotton field that has been transformed into a cemetery, with an endless stream of bodies arriving for swift burial. Compounding the anguish, the United Nations has warned that at least 870,000 people urgently need of hot meals across Turkey and Syria. In Syria alone, up to 5.3 million people may have been made homeless.

Turkey's disaster agency on Saturday said nearly 32,000 people from Turkish bodies are working on search and rescue efforts. In addition, there are 8,294 international rescuers.

'Clashes between groups' 

However, 82 Austrian soldiers on Saturday suspended rescue operations in Hatay over a "worsening security situation", an army spokesman told AFP. "There have been clashes between groups," he said, without giving details.

The UN rights office had on Friday urged all actors in the affected area -- where Kurdish militants and Syrian rebels operate -- to allow humanitarian access. The outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, which is considered a terrorist group by Ankara and its Western allies, announced a temporary halt in fighting to ease recovery work.

In rebel-held northwestern Syria, about four million people rely on humanitarian relief, but there have been no aid deliveries from government-controlled areas in three weeks. The Syrian government said it had approved the delivery of humanitarian assistance to quake-hit areas outside its control.

Only two aid convoys have crossed the border this week from Turkey, where authorities are engaged in an even bigger quake relief operation of their own. A decade of civil war and Syrian-Russian aerial bombardment had already destroyed hospitals and created electricity and water shortages.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the Security Council to authorise the opening of new cross-border humanitarian aid points between Turkey and Syria. The council will meet to discuss Syria, possibly early next week.

Turkey said it was working on opening two new routes into rebel-held parts of Syria. The winter freeze has left thousands of people either spending nights in their cars or huddling around makeshift fires that have become ubiquitous across the quake-hit region.

Anger builds 

Five days of grief and anguish have been slowly building into rage at the poor quality of buildings as well as the Turkish government's response to the country's worst disaster in nearly a century. Officials in the country say 12,141 buildings were either destroyed or seriously damaged in the earthquake.

"Damage was to be expected, but not the type of damage that you are seeing now", said Mustafa Erdik, a professor at Istanbul-based Bogazici University. Police on Friday detained a contractor trying to flee the country after his building collapsed in the catastrophic quake.

Authorities in Kahramanmaras and Osmaniye have launched investigations into the buildings that have collapsed, according to the Anadolu state news agency. The tremor was the most powerful and deadliest since 33,000 people died in a 7.8-magnitude tremor in 1939.

Officials and medics said 20,937 people had died in Turkey and 3,553 in Syria. The confirmed total now stands at 24,490. The disaster and resulting fury at how the Turkish government has handled it, comes just months before a presidential election in June.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan conceded for the first time on Friday that his government was not able to reach and help the victims "as quickly as we had desired".