Rescue teams are striving to reach many people believed to be trapped under rubble after an earthquake in eastern Turkey that killed at least 272 people and injured at least 1,300 people.
Authorities said on Monday that the death toll may not rise as high as initially feared, as several people were pulled out alive from collapsed buildings.
They added that 970 buildings collapsed in two cities in Van province as a consequence of Sunday afternoon’s 7.2-magnitude quake.
Idris Naim Sahin, Turkey’s interior minister, said that 95 people had died in the city of Van and 169 in Ercis district in the nation’s worst quake since the pair that struck northwestern Turkey in 1999 killing more than 20,000 people.
Turkey has mobilised 1,275 search and rescue teams from 38 cities as well as 145 ambulances to speed to the aid of the victims.
The military said six battalions were also involved in search and rescue efforts.
Six helicopters, including four helicopter ambulances, as well as C-130 military cargo planes were dispatched to the area carrying tents, food and medicine.
Besir Atalay, the country’s deputy prime minister, said that rescuers had now managed to get access to all the quake-hit zones in Van province, including remote villages.
Survivors pulled out
Al Jazeera’s Anita Mcnaught, reporting from Ercis, the worst affected city, said: “A member of the rescue service told me that they pulled more than 700 people out alive in main Ercis town alone as the earthquake happened.
She added that there were still many people trapped in the rubble because rescuers could hear their voices. Listening devices were being used to help locate people.
Yalcin Akay, a resident in Ercis, was dug out from a collapsed six-storey 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 about 20 hours after the quake struck, officials said.
Residents joined in the recovery effort, using shovels and other tools as they searched through the rubble and tended to the dying and wounded.
Many people spent the night outdoors after the quake which also caused widespread electricity outages, huddling around fires for warmth in near-freezing temperatures.
Turkey’s Kandilli seismological institute said in an initial assessment that between 500 and 1,000 people were estimated to have been killed in the disaster.
At least 200 inmates fled the prison in Van province when the building was damaged in the quake, media reports said, adding that 50 of them returned to prison later after seeing their families.
The earthquake also shook buildings in neighbouring Armenia and Iran.
In the Armenian capital of Yerevan, 160km from Ercis, people rushed into the streets in fear but no damage or injuries were reported.
Sunday’s quake caused panic in several Iranian towns close to the Turkish border and caused cracks in buildings in the city of Chaldoran, Iranian state TV reported.
Major geological faultlines cross Turkey and small earthquakes are almost a daily occurrence. A 6.0-magnitude quake in March 2010 last year killed 51 people in eastern Turkey, while a 6.4-magnitude earthquake killed 177 people in the southeastern city of Bingol in 2003.
Turkish authorities are likely to face questions over why they have failed to tighten up construction regulations to make buildings more earthquake-resilient, McNaught said.
“Experts have continuously told the Turkish authorities that the earthquake itself is not what kills people. It is faulty building construction that kills people,” our correspondent said.
“There have been pleas from all quarters – from people working in civil defence, from academics, from architects and urban planners – for successive governments to tighten up the building regulations. But that involves a huge investment of money.”