Rescuers pulled more survivors from rubble on Sunday, six days after one of the worst earthquakes to hit Turkey and Syria, as Turkish authorities sought to maintain order across the disaster zone and started legal action over some building collapses.
With chances of finding more survivors growing more remote, the toll in both countries from Monday’s earthquake and major aftershocks rose above 28,000 and looked set to keep growing. It was the deadliest quake in Turkey since 1939.
Displaced residents in the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras, near the epicentre, said they had set up tents as close as they could to their damaged or destroyed homes in an effort to prevent them from being looted.
Facing questions over his response to the earthquake as he prepares for a national election that is expected to be the toughest of his two decades in power, President Tayyip Erdogan promised to start rebuilding within weeks.
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In Syria, the disaster hit hardest in the rebel-held northwest, leaving many homeless for a second time after they were displaced by a decade-old civil war, though the region has received little aid compared to government-held areas.
“We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria,” United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths tweeted from the Turkey-Syria border, where only a single border crossing is open for U.N. aid supplies. “They rightly feel abandoned,” Griffiths said, adding that he was focused on addressing that swiftly.
In Turkey’s southeastern province of Hatay, a Romanian rescue team carried a 35-year-old man named Mustafa down a pile of debris from a building, broadcaster CNN Turk said, about 149 hours after he was buried by the quake.
“His health is good, he was talking,” said one of the rescuers. “He was saying, ‘Get me out of here quickly, I’ve got claustrophobia’.”
SECURITY FEARS AND DETENTION ORDERS
Two German rescue organisations suspended work in Turkey on Saturday, citing reports of clashes between groups of people and highlighting concerns for security in the quake-hit areas.
Gizem, a rescue worker from the southeastern province of Sanliurfa, said she had seen looters in the city of Antakya. “We cannot intervene much, as most of the looters carry knives.”
One elderly resident of Kahramanmaras said that gold jewelry in his home had been stolen, while in the port city of Iskenderun police had deployed at junctions of commercial streets with many phone and jewelry shops.
Erdogan has warned that looters will be severely punished.
Building quality in a country which lies on several seismic fault lines has come into sharp focus in the aftermath of the quake.
Vice President Fuat Oktay said that 131 suspects had so far been identified as responsible for the collapse of some of the thousands of buildings flattened in the 10 affected provinces.
“We will follow this up meticulously until the necessary judicial process is concluded, especially for buildings that suffered heavy damage and buildings that caused deaths and injuries,” he said.
Along the main road leading into the city of Antakya, where the few buildings left standing had large cracks or caved-in facades, traffic occasionally halted as rescue teams called for silence to detect signs of remaining life under the ruins.
The earthquake hit as Erdogan faces presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June. Even before the disaster, his popularity was falling due to soaring inflation and a slumping Turkish currency.
Some people affected by the quake and opposition politicians have accused the government of slow and inadequate relief efforts early on, and critics have questioned why the army, which played a key role after a 1999 earthquake, was not brought in sooner.
Erdogan has acknowledged problems, such as the challenge of delivering aid despite damaged transport links, but said the situation had been brought under control. He has called for solidarity and condemned “negative” politicking.
SYRIA AID “HELD UP”
In Syria, the hostilites that have fractured the country during 12 years of civil war are now hindering relief work.
Earthquake aid from government-held regions into territory controlled by hardline opposition groups has been held up by approval issues with Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which controls much of the region, a U.N. spokesperson said.
An HTS source in Idlib told Reuters the group would not allow any shipments from government-held areas and that aid would be coming in from Turkey to the north.
“Turkey has opened all the roads and we won’t allow the regime to take advantage of the situation to show they are helping,” the source said.
An aid convoy from Syria’s Kurdish-led northeastern region carrying fuel and other aid was also turned back on Thursday from the northwest, where Turkey-backed rebels reign.
The European Union’s envoy to Syria on Sunday urged authorities in Damascus to “engage in good faith” with aid workers. “It is important to allow unimpeded access for aid to arrive in all areas where it is needed,” Dan Stoenescu said.
The quake ranks as the world’s seventh deadliest natural disaster this century, its toll approaching the 31,000 from a quake in neighbouring Iran in 2003.
It has killed 24,617 inside Turkey, and more than 3,500 in Syria, where tolls have not been updated since Friday.
Turkey said about 80,000 people were in hospital, with more than 1 million in temporary shelters.