Erdogan condemns looters, critics of quake response as toll passes 17,000
(Update 1: adds Erdogan visit, updates casualties, adds info of delivery of UN aid)
Ankara/Beirut, Feb 9 (EFE).- Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday denounced reports of looting in some of Turkey’s worst-affected areas by twin earthquakes this week that have killed over 17,000 people in Turkey and Syria.
Erdogan was in Gaziantep, a city close to the epicenter of the first of two major earthquakes that struck near the Turkey-Syria border on Monday.
Over 14,000 people have died and nearly 64,000 have been injured in Turkey, Erdogan said, while authorities in neighboring Syria have confirmed at least 3,150 fatalities and more than 5,000 injured, with casualty figures still expected to rise.
“We see looting in markets and shopping centers,” Erdogan said, adding that a three-month state of emergency that came into force on Thursday would help address the situation.
Erdogan, who visited the provinces of Adana, Hatay and Kahramanmaras on Wednesday, has come under fire from opposition politicians and the public for what many believe has been a slow and inadequate government response to the disaster, which has devastated infrastructure and disrupted access to water, fuel, electricity and communications in 11 provinces amid sub-zero temperatures, rain and snow.
In his statement, the Turkish leader, who has been in power since 2002 and is facing re-election in polls slated for May, accused his opponents of “political abuse.”
“My citizens, my people will never give credit to this abuse,” Erdogan said, adding that the state of emergency would “give the state the opportunity to intervene (…) against all moneylenders, sedition groups, and conspiracy groups who exploit this process in Turkey, who lead to corruption in trade.”
While hopes of finding survivors 80 hours after the magnitude-7.7 and 7.6 earthquakes are fading rapidly, rescuers on Thursday were able to rescue several people, including a 16-year-old boy, a 68-year-old woman and a seven-year-old girl from the rubble.
Local experts estimate that tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people are still trapped under the rubble of thousands of collapsed buildings, and there is still no information on the situation in many towns in the most-affected provinces.
Ovgun Ahmet Ercan, one of Turkey’s leading geophysical engineers and earthquake scientists, told Anka news agency that he estimates the number of people still trapped under collapsed buildings to be up to 200,000.
“The world has rarely seen such a disaster,” he said.
Across the border in Syria, the death toll on Thursday stood at 3,162 and the number of injured at 5,235 as rescue efforts continued in the five most affected provinces of the country.
The White Helmets civil defense force, which works in opposition-controlled areas, said the death toll there had risen to more than 1,900 with over 2,950 injured.
“We are at a critical point… Time is running out, hundreds of families are still stuck under the rubble. Every second means saving a life. 75+ hours after the earthquake, our teams continue search operations amid great difficulties and need for heavy machinery to remove rubble,” the group tweeted.
At least 1,262 people lost their lives and 2,285 were injured in the areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s government, which has not updated its casualty figures since Wednesday.
Syrian authorities announced Wednesday that some 293,000 people in government-held areas have had to flee their homes as a result of the earthquakes.
The first convoy with UN humanitarian aid arrived Thursday to opposition-controlled areas in northwestern Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which links the Syrian province of Idlib with Turkey, almost four days after the initial earthquake, a border official told EFE.
The convoy is made up of six vehicles and is mainly carrying food, water and hygiene products, which are being unloaded at the border crossing itself and will be distributed in opposition areas by UN partner NGOs, said the source, who requested anonymity.
The aid shipment was already planned before the earthquakes struck on Monday as part of routine UN deliveries and was delayed as a result of the catastrophe.