Turkiye-Syria quake deaths pass 28,000, UN warns toll to double

KAHRAMANMARAS (AFP): Rescuers on Sunday pulled a seven-month-old baby and a teenage girl from the rubble nearly a week after a powerful earthquake devastated huge areas of Turkiye and Syria, killing more than 28,000 people.

UN relief chief Martin Griffiths warned that the death toll was likely to at least double, while denouncing a failure to provide sufficient aid for victims in war-torn northwestern Syria.

“We have so far failed the people in northwest Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived,” Griffiths said on Twitter.

“My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can.”

Griffiths arrived in southern Turkiye Saturday to assess the quake’s damage, telling Sky News he expected the death toll to “double or more” as the chances of finding survivors dim with each passing day.

Tens of thousands of rescue workers continued to scour flattened neighborhoods in freezing weather that has deepened the misery of millions now in desperate need of aid.

Security concerns led some aid operations to be suspended, and dozens of people have been arrested for looting or trying to defraud victims in the aftermath of the quake in Turkiye, according to state media.

But miraculous tales of survival still emerged.

“Is the world there?” asked 70-year-old Menekse Tabak as she was pulled out from the concrete in the southern Turkish city of Kahramanmaras, the epicenter of Monday’s 7.8-magnitude tremor, to applause and cries praising God, according to a video on state broadcaster TRT Haber.

A seven-month-old baby named Hamza was rescued in southern Hatay province more than 140 hours after the quake, while Esma Sultan, 13, was also saved in Gaziantep, state media reported.

Families were racing against time to find their missing relatives’ bodies in southern Turkiye.

“We hear (the authorities) will no longer keep the bodies waiting after a certain period of time, they say they will take them and bury them,” Tuba Yolcu said in Kahramanmaras.

Another family clutched each other in grief at a cotton field transformed into a cemetery, where a seemingly endless stream of bodies arrived for swift burials.

UN says millions are ‘homeless’

The United Nations has warned that at least 870,000 people urgently need hot meals across Turkiye and Syria. In Syria alone, up to 5.3 million people may have been made homeless.

Almost 26 million people have been affected by the earthquake, the World Health Organization (WHO) said as it appealed Saturday for $42.8 million to cope with immediate health needs as dozens of hospitals have been damaged.

Turkiye’s disaster agency said more than 32,000 people from Turkish organizations are working on search-and-rescue efforts, along with 8,294 international rescuers.

“Our co-workers are in a bad situation. Their families are victims and their houses are destroyed,” said Burhan Cagdas, son of the owner of a diner in Gaziantep that has served up to 4,000 free meals a day outdoors since the tragedy struck.

His own family has been sleeping in cars since Monday in the city where at least 2,000 have died and tens of thousands have been forced out of unsafe homes.

Clashes have also been reported and the UN rights office on Friday urged all sides in the affected area — where Kurdish militants and Syrian rebels operate — to allow humanitarian access.

Austrian soldiers and German rescue workers called off their searches for several hours on Saturday in Hatay, citing difficult security amid firing between local groups.

The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, considered a terrorist group by Ankara and its Western allies, has announced a temporary halt in fighting to ease recovery work.

On Sunday, a UN convoy of ten trucks crossed from Turkiye to northwest Syria, an area largely beyond the control of the central government in Damascus, via the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing, according to an AFP correspondent.

The trucks were carrying shelter kits including plastic sheeting, ropes and screws and nails for tents as well blankets, mattresses and carpets.

A border crossing between Armenia and Turkiye also opened for the first time in 35 years on Saturday to allow five trucks carrying food and water into the quake-hit region.

Slow aid flow to Syria

Aid has been slow to arrive in Syria, where years of conflict have ravaged the health care system and parts of the country remain under the control of rebels battling the government of President Bashar Assad, which is under Western sanctions.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus took a flight full of emergency medical equipment into the quake-stricken city of Aleppo on Saturday.

Damascus said it had approved the delivery of humanitarian assistance to quake-hit areas outside its control in Idlib province and a convoy was expected to leave on Sunday, though the delivery was later postponed without explanation.

The transport ministry said 57 aid planes had landed in Syria this week.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged the Security Council to authorize the opening of new cross-border aid points between Turkiye and Syria, with a meeting to discuss Syria possible in the coming days.

Turkiye said it was working on opening two new routes into rebel-held parts of Syria.

But after days of grief and anguish, anger in Turkiye has been growing over the poor quality of buildings as well as the government’s response to the country’s worst disaster in nearly a century.

Officials say 12,141 buildings were either destroyed or seriously damaged in the earthquake.

Turkish police reportedly detained 12 people on Saturday, including contractors, over collapsed buildings in the southeastern provinces of Gaziantep and Sanliurfa.

Officials and medics said 24,617 people had died in Turkiye and 3,574 in Syria. The confirmed total now stands at 28,191.