© Reuters. Seho Uyan, who survived the deadly earthquake but lost his four relatives, sits in front of a collapsed building in Adiyaman, Turkey, February 11, 2023. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar
Authors Ali Kucukgocmen and Maya Gebeily
ANTAKYA, Turkey (Reuters) – Rescuers pulled more survivors from the rubble on Sunday, six days after one of the worst earthquakes to hit Turkey and Syria, as Turkish authorities scrambled to maintain order in the disaster zone and launched legal action over the collapse of some buildings.
With the chances of finding more survivors increasing, the death toll from the earthquake and major aftershocks in both countries climbed above 28,000 and looked set to continue rising. It was the deadliest earthquake in Turkey since 1939.
Displaced residents in the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras, near the epicenter, said they had pitched tents as close as they could to their damaged or destroyed homes in an attempt to prevent them from being looted.
Facing questions about his response to the earthquake as he prepares for national elections expected to be the toughest of his two decades in power, President Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to begin rebuilding within weeks.
In Syria, the disaster has hit the rebel-held northwest the hardest, leaving many homeless for the second time after being displaced by the decade-long civil war, although the region has received little aid compared to government-held areas.
“So far we have failed the people of northwestern Syria,” United Nations humanitarian aid chief Martin Griffiths tweeted from the Turkey-Syria border, where only one border crossing is open to UN aid. “They rightly feel abandoned,” Griffiths said, adding that he was focused on getting it resolved quickly.
In Turkey’s southeastern Hatay province, a Romanian rescue team carried a 35-year-old man named Mustafa down a pile of debris from a building, CNN Turk reported, about 149 hours after the earthquake buried him.
“His health is good, he was talking,” said one of the rescuers. “He was saying, ‘Get me out of here quickly, I’m claustrophobic’.”
SECURITY FEARS AND DETERMINATION OF DETENTION
Two German rescue organizations suspended work in Turkey on Saturday, citing reports of clashes between groups of people and highlighting safety concerns in quake-hit areas.
Gizem, a rescue worker from the southeastern province of Sanliurfa, said she saw looters in the city of Antakya. “We can’t intervene much because most robbers carry knives.”
An elderly resident of Kahramanmaras said gold jewelry was stolen from his home, while in the port city of Iskenderun, police were deployed at intersections of commercial streets with numerous telephone and jewelry shops.
Erdogan warned that the robbers would be severely punished.
The quality of construction in the country, which lies on several seismic faults, came into focus after the earthquake.
Vice President Fuat Oktay said so far 131 suspects have been identified as responsible for the collapse of some of the thousands of buildings leveled to the ground in the 10 affected provinces.
“We will be monitoring closely until the necessary legal process is completed, especially for buildings that have suffered major damage and buildings that have caused death and injury,” he said.
Along the main road leading to the city of Antakya, where the few remaining buildings had large cracks or collapsed facades, traffic came to a halt at times as rescue teams called for silence to search for signs of life remaining beneath the rubble.
The quake comes as Erdogan faces presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June. Even before the disaster, his popularity was declining due to skyrocketing inflation and the decline of the Turkish currency.
Some people affected by the earthquake and opposition politicians have accused the government of slow and inadequate relief efforts in the early stages, and critics have questioned why the army, which played a key role after the 1999 quake, was not brought in sooner.
Erdogan acknowledged problems, such as the challenge of delivering aid despite damaged transport links, but said the situation was under control. He called for solidarity and condemned “negative” politics.
AID TO SYRIA “STALLED”
In Syria, the enemies that tore the country apart during 12 years of civil war are now hampering aid efforts.
Earthquake aid from government-held regions to territories controlled by hardline opposition groups has been halted because of problems with the approval of the Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which controls much of the region, a UN spokesman said.
An HTS source in Idlib told Reuters the group would not allow any shipments from government-held areas and that aid would come from Turkey to the north.
“Turkey has opened all roads and we will not allow the regime to use the situation to show that it is helping,” the source said.
An aid convoy from Syria’s Kurdish-led northeast region carrying fuel and other aid was also turned back Thursday from the northwest, where Turkish-backed rebels rule.
The European Union’s envoy to Syria called on the authorities in Damascus on Sunday to “cooperate in good faith” with aid workers. “It is important to provide unimpeded access to aid in all areas where it is needed,” said Dan Stoenescu.
The earthquake is considered the seventh deadliest natural disaster in the world this century, with its toll approaching the 31,000 in the 2003 earthquake in neighboring Iran.
It has killed 24,617 inside Turkey and more than 3,500 in Syria, where death tolls were not updated as of Friday.
Turkey said about 80,000 people were in hospitals and more than a million in temporary shelters.