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Turkey: Neighbors Send Aid But Not All Is Accepted

Turkey continues to dig its dead out from under the rubble of last Tuesday's earthquake and foreign countries are rushing to send help. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, politics is sometimes getting in the way of the efforts to help.

Prague, 25 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As Turkey's casualties from last week's earthquake continue to mount, countries throughout the region are sending aid whether or not they have good political relations with Ankara.

But not all of the help has been welcomed by the Turkish government. In the past days, Ankara has rejected all aid from Armenia and sent back some from Greece.

That reaction has shocked many ordinary Turks still struggling to cope with the quake's aftermath and helped to fuel a growing public debate in Turkey over how well the government is responding to the country's greatest national disaster in decades.

As of yesterday, the death toll from the earthquake which struck northwestern Turkey one week ago is more than 14,000 people. UN officials have said they expect the toll to rise to 45,000 as the bodies of tens of thousands of missing people are likely to be found beneath the rubble. At the same time, tens of thousands of others have been injured and at least 200,000 have been made homeless.

The staggering toll from the trembler -- the worst to hit earthquake-prone Turkey in 60 years -- has prompted an outpouring of international aid. Since the quake hit, more than 2,000 relief workers from 51 countries have raced to help its victims.

The help from countries within the region has come both from Turkey's friends and foes.

Caucusus and Central Asian republics which are linked to Turkey by their shared Turkic roots and culture have responded with supplies, financial donations and rescue teams. Azerbaijan, the closest geographically to Turkey has sent 100 relief specialists, including 30 doctors.

RFE/RL's correspondent in Baku, Zamira Gazyeva, says that reports of the death toll have shocked Azerbaijanis.

"I can tell you right away that it was truly a great tragedy for our people because the Turkish people are our brothers. The Turkish Republic is our fraternal country. And I can tell you that the very first day we learned the news, we observed a day of mourning in Azerbaijan. From the first days, Azerbaijan has given Turkey material aid in the form of oil. In addition, our rescuers, 30 rescuers, are taking part in recovery operations."

Elsewhere in the region, Turkmenistan has sent $100,00 in aid to the Turkish government. Uzbekistan has donated $200,000 and yesterday sent a 25-member rescue team to Turkey. Kazakhstan has sent a 20-person rescue team which arrived last week.

Kyrgyzstan also sent a plane carrying a rescue team, doctors and aid to Turkey last week. And the Russian republic of Tatartstan has said it is readying a planeload of humanitarian aid and publicly collecting funds to help the victims.

Other neighbors of Turkey who are more often regarded as rivals than friends have also sent help. Syria, which last year had a political showdown with Ankara over its support of the Turkish-rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), sent 125 tons of supplies and medicine along with medical teams.

Baghdad, which repeatedly accuses Turkey of violating its sovereignty by conducting military sweeps against PKK bases in northern Iraq, promised to send Turkey aid in oil. But it is unclear how or when Iraq, which is under UN trade sanctions, might make good on its pledges.

Turkey's archrival in the eastern Mediterranean, Greece, said it would do everything possible to get relief to Turkey and will press the European Union (EU) to adopt aid measures aimed at earthquake victims. But Athens stopped short of saying it would lift its longstanding veto of EU development aid to Turkey as Ankara has often demanded.

Armenia -- a country which itself experienced a massive earthquake in 1988 -- had hoped to send a team of 100 disaster specialists and 10 trucks of relief supplies last week. But the convoys, which Yerevan says were ready to depart within hours after the trembler struck, were refused by the Turkish government. News reports say that Turkey informed Armenia that it had plenty of help already and did not need more.

Historically, Turkish-Armenian relations have been poisoned by the 1915 massacres of Armenians in Turkey by the Ottoman government. More recently, Turkey has kept its border with Armenia closed since 1993 to punish Yerevan for supporting ethnic Armenians fighting Baku for independence in Nagorno-Karabakh. But Ankara's politically-based refusal of the Armenian aid, as well as reports it sent back some food aid to Greece, has only shocked earthquake victims who desperately need help to rebuild their lives.

Yesterday, several Turkish papers demanded the dismissal of Turkey's Health Minister Osman Durmus after he gave a long speech on television rejecting Yerevan's help and saying Turkey can face the disaster alone. Durmus, a member of the ultra-nationalist National Action Party (MHP), also said that aid from UN navy hospital ships was not needed. As he put it: "foreign teams neither understand our lifestyle nor culture."

The outrage over Durmus' remarks has added to mounting criticism within Turkey that the government has responded too slowly with its own relief efforts and that official disregard of building codes significantly contributed to the scope of the disaster.

The debate heightened Monday (Aug. 23) as Tourism Minister Erkan Mumcu broke ranks with other cabinet members and called Ankara's response to the earthquake "a declaration of bankruptcy for the Turkish political and economic system." Earthquake victims and foreign relief workers have complained that it took 48 hours after the quake struck for Ankara to put a coordinated rescue effort into place.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit last week acknowledged the scope of the destruction in a speech on Turkish television. But he defended his government's response.

"This is certainly one of the worst catastrophes in the history of the world and certainly the worst in Turkish history. The activities of government officials are continuing at full speed in spite of the serious obstacles of the first two days."

Meanwhile, news reports yesterday said that thousands of Turks made homeless by the earthquake have begun to leave the stricken area to find shelter elsewhere in the country rather than await the government's rebuilding efforts. Many of those leaving said they are exhausted by sleeping out of doors and by what they called the chaotic nature of Ankara's relief efforts.

(RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten contributed to this report)