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Turkey quake death toll rising

Oct. 24, 2011 - 19:26 By

More than 200 dead while rescuers keep digging for survivors 

ERCIS, Turkey (AP) -- A survivor of the 7.2-magnitude quake that has killed at least 239 people in eastern Turkey was pulled from the rubble with three other people on Monday after he managed to call for help on his cell phone. Dozens of people were trapped in hills of debris, but authorities offered hope that the death toll may not rise as high as initially feared.

Rescuers searched throughout the night among pancaked buildings as families members waited outside, some in tears. Cranes and other heavy equipment lifted slabs of concrete and residents searched for the missing with shovels. Aid groups scrambled to set up tents, field hospitals and kitchens to assist thousands left homeless or who were afraid to re-enter their homes.

Survivor Yalcin Akay was dug from a collapsed 6-story building with a leg injury after he called a police emergency line on his phone and described his location, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported. Three other people, including two children, were also rescued from the same building in the city of Ercis some 20 hours after the quake struck, officials said.

Officials said hundreds of mud-brick homes in villages and concrete buildings in two cities tumbled down in the earthquake that struck near the border with Iran, on Sunday. Worst-hit was the city of Ercis, an eastern city of 75,000 close to the Iranian border and one of Turkey's most earthquake-prone zones, where about 80 multistory buildings collapsed.

Rescue workers try to save people trapped under debris after an earthquake in a village near the eastern Turkish city of Van on Sunday. (AP)

The bustling, larger city of Van, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Ecris, also sustained substantial damage, but Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin said search efforts there were winding down.

Sahin said he expected the death toll in Ercis to rise, but not as substantially as initially feared.

``As the rescue work progresses, there is a possibility of the Ercis death toll increasing but the figures are not likely to be scary numbers,'' he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said 239 people were killed in the quake and more than a thousand others were injured.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who inspected the area late Sunday, said ``close to all'' mud-brick homes in surrounding villages had collapsed in the temblor that also rattle parts of Iran and Armenia.

In Ercis, a team specializing in mine disaster rescue, worked through the rubble of a building that housed students.

``Four or five (apartments) have been leveled,'' team member Mustafa Bilgin said. ``University students are said to be living here. We don't know how many of them are still inside, we've reached their computers, clothing but we did not see anyone inside. They might be trapped in another apartment as they tried to escape.''

Dozens of people huddled around the building and silently watched the rescue work.

Women carried buckets to collect food from a soup kitchen as frequent aftershocks jolted the town.

``We stayed outdoors all night, I could not sleep at all, my children, especially the little one, was terrified,'' said Serpil Bilici of her six-year-old daughter, Rabia. ``I grabbed her and rushed out when the quake hit, we were all screaming.''

Bilici, a mother of five children aged between six and 16, said her house had only cracks but her family was too afraid to go back inside. She lost one relative in the quake.

A woman, who lost her parents, sat on the ground meters away from another crumpled building, sobbing as relatives tried to comfort her.

The terrifying moments of the powerful temblor still haunted many.

``I was in the street and saw the buildings sway,'' Hasan Ceylan, 48, said as he squatted in front of the wreckage of his three businesses, including a grocery and a veterinary clinic.

Abubekir Acar, 42, said he was sipping tea with his friends across a coffee house, which was leveled.

``We did not understand what was going on, the buildings around us, the coffee house all went down so quickly,'' said Acar as he sat on the rubble of a building. ``For a while, we could not see anything _ everywhere was covered in dust. Then, we heard screams and pulled out anyone we could reach.''

The government said it would offer favorable term loans to help rebuild small businesses in the region.

Some inmates escaped from a prison in Van after one of its walls collapsed. TRT television said around 150 inmates had fled, but a prison official said the number was much smaller and many later returned.

U.S. scientists recorded more than 100 aftershocks in eastern Turkey within 10 hours of the quake, including one with a magnitude of 6.0.

Authorities advised people to stay away from damaged homes, warning they could collapse in the aftershocks.

Many residents spent the night outdoors and lit campfires, while the Red Crescent began setting up tents in a stadium. Others sought shelter with relatives in nearby villages.

Around 1,275 rescue teams from 38 provinces were dispatched to the region, officials said, and troops were also assisting search-and-rescue efforts.

Several countries offered assistance but Erdogan said Turkey was able to cope for the time being. Azerbaijan, Iran and Bulgaria nevertheless sent assistance, he said.

Among those offering help were Israel and Greece. The offer from Israel came despite a rift in relations following a 2010 Israeli navy raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that left nine Turks dead. Greece, which has a deep dispute with Turkey over the divided island of Cyprus, also offered to send in a special earthquake rescue team.

Leaders around the world conveyed their condolences and offered assistance.

``We stand shoulder to shoulder with our Turkish ally in this difficult time, and are ready to assist,'' U.S. President Barack Obama said.

Israeli President Shimon Peres telephoned Turkish President Abdullah Gul to offer assistance.

``Israel shares in your sorrow,'' Peres said in a statement. ``Israel is ready to render any assistance that may be required anywhere in Turkey, at any time.''

Turkey lies in one of the world's most active seismic zones and is crossed by numerous fault lines. In 1999, two earthquakes with a magnitude of more than 7 struck northwestern Turkey, killing about 18,000 people.

More recently, a 6.0-magnitude quake in March 2010 killed 51 people in eastern Turkey, while in 2003, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake killed 177 people in the southeastern city of Bingol.

Istanbul, the country's largest city with more than 12 million people, lies in northwestern Turkey near a major fault line. Experts have warned that overcrowding and shoddy construction in Istanbul could kill tens of thousands if a major earthquake struck there.