Turkey Quake Toll Tops 500

Snow blanketed quake-hit eastern Turkey Thursday, while emergency crews found a teenager alive in the rubble more than 100 hours after the disaster even as the death toll climbed to 550.

Aydin Palak, 18, was pulled out of the wreckage in town of Ercis, which took the full brunt of the quake, media reports said.

Television footage showed emergency workers carrying him to an ambulance over their shoulders on a stretcher.

Palak’s rescue came after rescuers saved a 19-year-old earlier on Thursday, although prospects of finding more people alive were fading fast, and some rescue teams have started to leave the region, the Anatolia news agency said.

Late Thursday, the emergency situations management reported that 550 people had died after the quake, some 15 more than reported earlier, and 2,300 people were injured.

A total of 186 people had been pulled alive from the wreckage, officials said.

After the government acknowledged failings in the initial rescue efforts, help from abroad was beginning to arrive, including an aid plane from Israel and Armenia.

And Saudi Arabia pledged to donate $50 million in aid to the quake victims, the kingdom’s official SPA news agency reported.

But in a sign of the disillusionment with the help they had received so far, some families who had been staying in tents began returning to their homes despite warnings that they were still at risk of collapse from aftershocks.

Many families have been forced to sleep in overcrowded tents or even out in the open around fires as the temperatures dropped to below freezing, while some locals complained that aid was not being distributed fairly.

A tent city has arisen around the government-built apartment blocks near Ercis, although the buildings survived the earthquake with minor damage.

A 41-year-old taxi driver, Mujdat Yilmaz, whose house collapsed, said he had not been able to get hold of a tent since Sunday.

“I’ve been waiting in the queue at several spots since the quake occurred but I couldn’t get any,” he said, while waiting in the line in Ercis.

Red Cresecent head Ahmet Lutfi Aker told NTV news channel that 27,500 tents had been brought in to Van.

A separate 5.4 magnitude quake on Thursday morning struck the southeastern town of Yuksekova, near the Iraqi border, over 200 kilometres (120 miles) southeast of Van, although no damage was reported and experts said it involved a different faultline.

With hopes in Van of finding anyone else alive receding, the focus was shifting to how to help survivors.

The arrival of an Israeli plane carrying five pre-fabricated homes to provide shelter was a powerful symbol of the change of heart by the Turkish government which had initially refused help from abroad.

Relations between Turkey and Israel have been toxic in the wake of a deadly raid by Israeli commandos last year on an aid vessel bound for the Gaza Strip.

“Three more planes loaded with aid supplies will come to Turkey within two days,” Nizar Amer, an official from the Israeli embassy in Ankara, told Anatolia.

Foreign ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal on Thursday said diplomatic relations with Israel and humanitarian aid were separate issues, Anatolia reported.

Unal said 14 countries as well as United Nations bodies would send help to Turkey, including Britain, France, Russia, Jordan and Belgium.

A Saudi statement said King Abdullah had given orders to help “its sister nation” Turkey in its efforts to deal with the devastation of the quake.

A 150-person rescue team from Azerbaijan was already in the quake zone, the first foreign team to arrive.

An Armenian plane carrying 40 tonnes of emergency supplies including tents, sleeping bags and blankets was set to take off late Thursday, officials in Yerevan said.

Relations between Yerevan and Ankara have suffered for years over Turkey’s refusal to recognise the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians as genocide.

After widespread overnight snowfall in the region, forecasters said the weather pattern would remain the same until the end of the week.

Huseyin Celik, deputy head of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), said that the earthquake had affected 700,000 people in the region and up to 115,000 tents were needed.

The prosecutor’s office in Ercis meanwhile began an investigation into the construction companies that put up the collapsed buildings, Anatolia said.

In Van province 3,713 buildings, home to 5,250 families, had been destroyed, the prime minister’s emergency unit said.

There have been frequent complaints among residents of the mainly Kurdish region that the Ankara government would have acted faster if disaster had struck elsewhere.

“We did not discriminate between Turks, Kurds or Zaza people…. We said that they are all our people,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday as he defended his government’s handling of the aid operation.

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