ANKARA – The death toll from a strong earthquake that rocked eastern Turkey climbed to 29 on Saturday night as rescue crews searched for people who remained trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings, officials said.
Speaking at a televised news conference, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said earlier in the day that 18 people were killed in Elazig province, where Friday night's quake was centered, and four in neighboring Malatya. The national disaster agency later updated the total with seven more casualties.
Some 1,243 people were injured, with 34 of them in intensive care but not in critical condition, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said.
On Saturday afternoon, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the hardest-hit areas and attended the funeral of a mother and son killed in the quake. He warned people against repeating “negative” hearsay about the country being unprepared for earthquakes.
“Do not listen to rumors, do not listen to anyone’s negative, contrary propaganda, and know that we are your servants,” Erdogan said.
Various earthquake monitoring centers gave magnitudes ranging from 6.5 to 6.8. for the earthquake, which hit Friday at 8:55 p.m. local time (1755 GMT) near the Elazig province town of Sivrice, the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) said.
It was followed by 398 aftershocks, the strongest of them with magnitudes 5.4 and 5.1, the disaster agency said.
Emergency workers and security forces distributed tents, beds and blankets as overnight temperatures dropped below freezing in the affected areas. Mosques, schools, sports halls and student dormitories were opened for hundreds who left their homes after the quake.
“The earthquake was very severe. We desperately ran out (of our home),” Emre Gocer told the state-run Anadolu news agency as he sheltered with his family at a sports hall in Sivrice. “We don’t have a safe place to stay right now.”
While visiting Sivrice and the city of Elazig, the provincial capital located some 565 kilometers (350 miles) east of Ankara, Erdogan promised state support for those affected by the disaster.
“We will not leave anyone in the open,” the Turkish leader.
Earlier, a prosecutor in the capital Ankara announced an investigation into “provocative” social media posts. The Anadolu news agency reported that Turkey’s broadcasting authority was also reviewing media coverage of the quake.
At least five buildings in Sivrice and 25 in Malatya province were destroyed in the disaster, Environment and Urbanization Minister Murat Kurum said. Hundreds of other structures were damaged and made unsafe.
AFAD reported that 42 people had been rescued as search teams combed wrecked apartment buildings.
Television footage showed emergency workers removing a woman from the wreckage of a collapsed building 19 hours after the main earthquake struck.
A prison in Adiyaman, 110 kilometers (70 miles) southwest of the epicenter, was evacuated due to damage its more than 800 prisoners transferred to nearby jails.
AFAD said 28 rescue teams had been working around the clock. More than 2,600 personnel from 39 of Turkey’s 81 provinces were sent to the disaster site. Unmanned drones were used to survey damaged neighborhoods and coordinate rescue efforts.
“Our biggest hope is that the death toll does not rise,” Parliament Speaker Mustafa Sentop said.
Communication companies announced free telephone and internet services for residents in the quake-hit region.
United Nation's Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “deeply saddened by the loss of life and destruction of property in the wake of an earthquake in Elazig province, Turkey,” according to a statement from his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric.
Neighboring Greece, which is at odds with Turkey over maritime boundaries and gas exploration rights, offered to send rescue crews to assist the Turkish teams.
Erdogan appeared to reject the offer of outside assistance during his visit to the city of Elazig, telling reporters, “Our state does not need anything.”
Turkey sits on top of two major fault lines and earthquakes are frequent. Two strong earthquakes struck northwest Turkey in 1999, killing around 18,000 people.
A magnitude 6.0 earthquake killed 51 people in Elazig in 2010.