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Children rescued as Turkey-Syria quake toll nears 24,000


Rescuers pulled children from the rubble of the Turkey-Syria earthquake on Saturday as the death toll approached 24,000 and a winter freeze compounded the suffering of millions of people, many in desperate need of aid.

At least 870,000 people urgently needed food in the two countries after the quake, which has made up to 5.3 million people homeless in Syria alone, the UN warned. Aftershocks following Monday's 7.8-magnitude tremor have added to the death toll and further upended the lives of survivors.

"When I see the destroyed buildings, the bodies, it's not that I can't see where I will be in two or three years -- I can't imagine where I'll be tomorrow," said Fidan Turan, a pensioner in Turkey's southern city of Antakya, her eyes filling with tears. "We've lost 60 of our extended family members," she said. "Sixty! What can I say? It's God's will."

The United Nations World Food Programme appealed for $77 million to provide food rations to at least 590,000 newly displaced people in Turkey and 284,000 in Syria. Of those, 545,000 were internally displaced people and 45,000 were refugees, it said.

- Humanitarian access - The UN rights office on Friday urged all actors in the affected area -- where Kurdish militants and Syrian rebels operate -- to allow humanitarian access.

The outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, which is considered a terrorist group by Ankara and its Western allies, announced a temporary halt in fighting to ease recovery work. In rebel-held northwestern Syria, about four million people rely on humanitarian aid but there have been no aid deliveries from government-controlled areas in three weeks.

The Syrian government said it had approved the delivery of humanitarian aid to quake-hit areas outside its control. Only two aid convoys have crossed the border this week from Turkey, where authorities are engaged in an even bigger quake relief operation of their own. A decade of civil war and Syrian-Russian aerial bombardment had already destroyed hospitals and created shortages of electricity and water.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the Security Council to authorize the opening of new cross-border humanitarian aid points between Turkey and Syria. The council will meet to discuss Syria, possibly early next week. Turkey said it was working on opening two new routes into rebel-held parts of Syria.

The winter freeze has left thousands of people either spending nights in their cars or huddling around makeshift fires that have become ubiquitous across the quake-hit region.

- Anger builds - Five days of grief and anguish have been slowly building into a rage at the poor quality of buildings as well as the Turkish government's response to the country's most dire disaster in nearly a century. Officials in the country say 12,141 buildings were either destroyed or seriously damaged in the earthquake. "The floors are piling on top of each other," said Mustafa Erdik, a professor at Istanbul-based Bogazici University, which means the chances of being found alive are slim. Police on Friday detained a contractor trying to flee the country after his building collapsed in the catastrophic quake. The tremor was the most powerful and deadliest since 33,000 people died in a 7.8-magnitude tremor in 1939.

Officials and medics said 20,318 people had died in Turkey and 3,553 in Syria. The confirmed total now stands at 23,871. Anger has mounted over the Turkish government's handling of the disaster, changing the tenor of the country's presidential election campaign ahead of polls due in June. "People who didn't die from the earthquake were left to die in the cold," Hakan Tanriverdi told AFP in Adiyaman province. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan conceded for the first time on Friday that his government was not able to reach and help the victims "as quickly as we had desired".

- Cypriot children - One of the single biggest tragedies involved 24 Cypriot children between the ages of 11 and 14 who were in Turkey for a volleyball tournament when the quake swallowed their hotel. Ten of their bodies were repatriated to their homeland in northern Cyprus.

Turkish media reported that at least 19 people in the group -- which included 15 accompanying adults -- have now been confirmed dead. burs-zak/raz/pvh/mca/cwl By Fulya Ozerkan with Remi Banet in Antakya

The apartments they once industriously spent so long saving up for, decorating, and making comfortable now lie in a heap of rubble after a violent quake hit Turkey. New and old buildings, some constructed only six months ago, fell apart.

Others flattened like concrete pancakes. The full extent of the damage is unknown from Monday's 7.8-magnitude tremor and ceaseless aftershocks, which unleashed catastrophe in Turkey and Syria, killing more than 23,000 people.

Turkey's death toll rises every day. In parallel, so has fury over why, in a country with multiple fault lines and a history of major jolts, building quality is so poor that buildings fall apart like paper.

Experts say Turkey has the regulations in place to prevent such a catastrophe. But they are only applied loosely by construction companies, the largest of which are often close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Officials say 12,141 buildings were either destroyed or seriously damaged in Turkey. Since the first quake was so huge, "damage was to be expected, but not the type of damage that you are seeing now", said Mustafa Erdik, a professor at Istanbul-based Bogazici University. Even if a building topples, people can usually hide until searchers can rescue them, he said.

But this time, he added, buildings suffered "a pancake collapse". "The floors are piling on top of each other," Erdik, also part of the Turkish Earthquake Foundation said, which means the chances of being found alive are slim.

- Poor quality cement - So why did the buildings topple? The causes are usually linked to the poor quality of the concrete, which sometimes is mixed with too much water and gravel, and too little concrete, according to Zihni Tekin, a consultant at Istanbul Technical University. Other reasons include steel rods that are too thin to support the columns, which limit the building's strength, the engineer said.

But Tekin also blamed engineers and architects' low quality of education, despite private universities appearing across Turkey. Turkish officials have also gambled by easing regulations. Turkey's rules on construction, based on California's, have been regularly revised since a 1999 tremor in northwestern Turkey. The last revision came in 2018.

"On paper, standards are respected, with contracts entrusted to private companies in charge of checking them," Istanbul architect Aykut Koksal said. But oversight of these agreements is lax, he added, giving builders greater leeway in following -- or not -- the rules. - Fury over negligence, greed - Heavy bureaucratic procedures also end up diluting who is responsible if or when something goes wrong, Erdik said. "The steps and signatories are so many that at the end, it is difficult to identify who is responsible."

To fix this issue, he recommends imposing insurance on all actors against malpractice that guarantees victims compensation by guilty contractors. "That's how it is elsewhere in the world and it should be in Turkey," he said. The clear negligence and greed shown by some contractors has sparked fury, especially after luxury flats built within the last 20 years crumbled like a pack of cards. Many hope this quake will finally lead to better monitoring. The first legal complaint was made on Friday in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir and others have followed.

- Erdogan's vow to rebuild - What has particularly raised hackles is the importance Erdogan has placed on construction since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

The boom in construction powered the substantial economic growth under Erdogan in the early years of his rule. Official figures show the number of companies operating in the real estate sector increased by 43 percent in 10 years, reaching 127,000 before the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. With Erdogan promising to rebuild the affected area within a year, the real estate frenzy is not likely to slow down. Many speculate on the risk posed by high-rise buildings in Istanbul, which is anticipating its own passive jolt.

But for Erdik, the main concern is the "buildings with six, seven and eight floors built by small companies or even the families themselves". He is not the only one fearful of lax building safety. Since Monday, he has received never-ending calls from developers asking him to urgently assess their towers.

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