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Turkey: Search For Quake Survivors Continues Amid Rising Tension

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkish rescue workers today continued searching for possible survivors of yesterday's powerful earthquake, which killed more than 100 people in the eastern city of Bingol. Tension is mounting over lack of relief and poor construction standards that contributed to the quake's devastating toll, RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 2 May 2003 (RFERL) -- The quake, measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale, struck Bingol and its outskirts before dawn yesterday, while most residents were asleep. Located some 700 kilometers east of Ankara, this predominantly Kurdish city was the scene of a powerful quake in 1971 that killed about 900 people.

An official statement has put the preliminary death toll of yesterday's quake at 115 and the number of injured residents at around 500. Rescue workers fear as many as 150 people might have been killed. A school dormitory in Celtiksuyu on the outskirts of Bingol suffered the worst damage. The four-story concrete building collapsed on itself, trapping nearly 200 boys and girls between the ages of seven and 16 -- the children of poor families from remote villages.

More than 90 survivors have been rescued so far from the rubble. The bodies of 22 children and a teacher have been recovered. Some 80 pupils remain unaccounted for.

Using cranes and jackhammers, military and civil rescue teams assisted by sniffer dogs worked through the night, probing and digging into the wreckage in search of possible survivors.

Gingerly working their way down through the heap of crumpled concrete under the gaze of distraught relatives -- many praying or wailing in anguish -- rescuers intermittently turned off generators and lights to scan the ruins with sensitive microphones, listening for any signs of life.

Five children were found alive overnight and another boy was rescued early today, with only slight injuries.

Turkish authorities said yesterday that the relative lack of multistory buildings in the mountainous region saved many lives during the earthquake. But they admitted that shoddy building materials were responsible for the collapse of the Celtiksuyu dormitory.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who visited the scene yesterday, criticized the quality of the dormitory's construction and pledged to investigate the company that built it.

Turkey's construction sector is renowned to be riddled with corruption and collusion between state officials and contractors, who often disregard building regulations.

Turkey is crisscrossed with seismic fault lines and earthquakes there are common and exceptionally lethal.

Poor building standards were to blame for the death of many of the 20,000 people killed in two major earthquakes in northwestern Turkey four years ago.

"Earthquakes happen all around the world, but no country loses as many people to quakes as Turkey," Education Minister Erkan Mumcu said yesterday.

In Celtiksuyu, infuriated residents yesterday accused local authorities of cutting costs in the construction of the school dormitory. Security officials were forced to cordon off the collapsed dormitory to prevent relatives from searching through the rubble themselves.

In Bingol, tension rose further today when several hundred protestors demonstrated in front of the office of Governor Huseyin Avni Cos to demand more government relief for the victims of the quake. The Turkish Red Crescent relief agency has sent tents, blankets, and mobile kitchens to the region, but many residents have reportedly spent the night in makeshift shelters of plastic sheeting.

Police fired warning shots into the air to scatter the infuriated crowd, which was demanding the governor's resignation. Some of the protestors attempted to storm the governor's office and two of them were injured after a police vehicle drove into the crowd. Subsequent scuffles left several people injured. Paramilitary forces were called in to rescue police officers trapped in their cars by angry demonstrators.

Relations between residents and the police have been traditionally tense in Bingol, where most residents are said to support the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Seeking autonomy from Ankara, the PKK fought a 15-year guerrilla war with Turkish forces that claimed more than 30,000 lives. Sporadic clashes continue.

Bingol deputy Fevzi Berdibek, who is in the city to oversee relief efforts, told Turkey's Anadolu news agency he suspected the clashes had been deliberately planned and dismissed claims that city residents were angry at civilian authorities. Berdibek is a member of Turkey's Adalet ve Kalkinma (Justice and Development) ruling party.

In Ankara today, deputy chief of police Feyzullah Arslan warned that any member of the security forces found at fault would be punished.

While blaming unidentified "provocateurs" for the unrest, Prime Minister Erdogan later announced that Bingol police chief Osman Nuri Ozdemir had been suspended. He also defended the state's response to the crisis and urged city residents to remain "calm and sensitive."