Turkey Says 217 Dead in Quake, Victims Trapped

Rescuers scrambled through the rubble in a desperate search on Monday for survivors of an earthquake that killed at least 264 people in Turkey as residents fled the scenes of devastation.

People living in eastern Van province issued cries for help on Twitter, giving out the addresses of collapsed buildings and the number of people trapped under the debris, as hundreds of rescuers worked round the clock.

Two children were plucked alive from the wreckage of a collapsed building in the town of Ercis but it was a rare slice of good news in an otherwise grim task for the rescue teams.

Many students were believed to be buried in Ercis, the town which felt the full brunt of the quake, after a dormitory collapsed and several student houses crumbled.

A total of 264 people were confirmed to have been killed by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake which struck around lunchtime on Sunday, according to Idris Naim Sener, the country's interior minister.

In Ercis 169 people were killed, while 95 died in Van city center, the Anatolia news agency quoted Sener as saying.

The government said that a total of 970 buildings had collapsed as a result of the quake and aftershocks.

Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said that rescuers had now managed to get access to all the quake-hit zones in Van province, including remote villages.

One resident of Ercis recounted the moment when disaster struck and how many had been forced to sleep outside overnight in freezing temperatures.

"We couldn't understand what was going on -- all of a sudden there was dust everywhere, our eyes were full of dust, and we were thrown against the walls and furniture. It lasted 20 seconds," said 23-year-old Yunus Ozmen.

"We spent the night outside in the street and made a fire to keep warm."

His neighbor Abdul Hadi Isik said that his aunt and her children were buried under the rubble.

"There is no hope left," he added.

Agence France Presse journalists in Ercis reported that the rescue effort was being hampered by a lack of electricity and water.

Atalay said 29 villages and 40 percent of Ercis town were without power but denied there was a problem with water.

Many of the town's residents were fleeing the town while police and soldiers kept watching around crumbled buildings to prevent looting.

Using electrical pliers, rescuers could be seen patiently cutting through iron rods holding concrete blocks together while other people started to sweep up the mess.

The town's football pitch had been transformed into a sea of tents set up by the Red Crescent.

While scores of multi-storey buildings had collapsed, most single-storey houses remained intact.

Only nine percent of buildings in Van province had compulsory earthquake insurance, according to Selamet Yazici, the general manager of the natural disaster insurance institution.

In the province's main city of Van, authorities shut down Yuzunci Yil University and sent more than 4,000 students back to their home towns, Anatolia reported.

Some 200 inmates fled the province's main prison when the building was damaged in the quake, media reports said, adding that 50 of them returned to prison later after seeing their families.

Turkey mobilized some 2,400 search and rescue teams from 45 cities to speed to the aid of the victims, the emergency unit of the prime ministry said. More than 200 ambulances were sent to Van, Health Minister Recep Akdag added.

The military said six battalions were also involved in search and rescue efforts.

Six helicopters, including four helicopter ambulances, as well as C-130 military cargo planes were dispatched to the area carrying tents, food and medicine.

The finance ministry postponed the debt of tax payers in Van for a year, media reports said.

The Turkish Red Crescent sent some 7,500 tents, more than 22,000 blankets, almost 4,000 heaters and 1,000 body bags to the region.

A mobile bakery and 21 mobile kitchens were also sent to Van, it added. Officials started to erect a tent city in Ercis stadium, the organization said on its website.

U.S. President Barack Obama said he had been following reports of the disaster "with great concern" and offered his condolences and help to the victims.

The quake was also felt across the border in northwestern Iran, causing some panic in major cities, Iranian media reported. They did not report any deaths or serious damage.

Iran has sent 20 rescuers, 20 ambulances, a field hospital, food supplies and 50 tents for emergency shelter to Van, which lies just over the border with Iran,

In 1999, two strong quakes in northwest Turkey's heavily populated and industrialized regions left some 20,000 dead. A powerful earthquake in the town of Caldiran in Van province killed 3,840 people in 1976.

Source: Agence France Presse

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