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Rescuers find more people alive in Turkey, more aid reaches Syria

Politics weighed on efforts to rush in aid, as many survivors still waiting for tents slept outside in freezing weather.
Posted at 7:35 AM, Feb 14, 2023

Aid agencies and governments stepped up a scramble to send help to earthquake-hit parts of Turkey and Syria on Tuesday, as rescuers continued to pull survivors out of the rubble more than 200 hours after devastation swept the region.

Politics weighed on efforts to rush in aid, as many survivors still waiting for tents slept outside in freezing weather. Efforts to help survivors and count the dead and injured in Syria were marred by the continued divisions from 12 years of civil war.

On Tuesday, the United Nations announced a deal with Damascus to deliver U.N. aid through two more border crossings from Turkey to rebel-held areas of northwest Syria, which was likely to help in the short term.

The death toll eclipsed 35,500 — nearly 32,000 of those in Turkey. In Syria, the toll in the northwestern rebel-held region has reached 2,166, according to the rescue group known as the White Helmets. Over 1,400 people have died in government-held areas, according to the Syrian Health Ministry.

The toll is nearly certain to rise as search teams turn up more bodies following the magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 quakes that struck nine hours apart on Feb. 6 in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria — and the window for finding survivors was closing.

In Adiyaman province, rescuers reached 18-year-old Muhammed Cafer Cetin, and medics gave him an IV with fluids before attempting a dangerous extraction from a building that crumbled further as rescuers were working. Medics fitted him with a neck brace and he was carted away on a stretcher with an oxygen mask, Turkish TV showed.

Two others were rescued from a destroyed building in central Kahramanmaras, near the epicenter. Dozens of rescuers and Turkish soldiers at the site hugged and clapped after the rescues including that of Muhammed Enes, 17, who was seen wrapped in a thermal blanket and carried on a stretcher to an ambulance in images shown by broadcaster Haberturk.

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Rescuers then asked for quiet, and one shouted "Can anyone hear me?" in the frenzied hunt for more survivors.

In hard-hit Hatay, Sengul Abalioglu lost her older sister and four nephews. "It doesn't matter if they're dead or alive, we just want our corpses so that they at least have a grave and we can bury them," she told The Associated Press, devastated as she waited in front of the rubble where her family could be.

The United Nations said Monday that President Bashar Assad of Syria had agreed to open two new crossing points from Turkey to his country's rebel-held northwest to allow in aid and equipment for millions of victims. The crossings at Bab al-Salameh and Al Raée are to be opened for an initial period of three months, but it wasn't immediately clear when and if the U.N. aid would get through.

Until now, the U.N. has only been allowed to deliver aid to the Idlib area through a single crossing at Bab Al-Hawa, and the world body has been under intense pressure to get more aid and heavy equipment into northwest Syria.

Russia bristled about the deal, with its Foreign Ministry denouncing an alleged Western push to get aid "exclusively" to areas not controlled by the Syrian government.

"We are on day nine and we are still hearing the question of when will aid get in. We heard yesterday that two crossings may be opened," Mahmoud Haffar, head of local council in Jenderis, one of the worst-hit communities in northwestern Syria, told AP. "We hope there is more international interaction and that international aid comes to alleviate the crisis."

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"But so far no aid has come," he said.

A first Saudi aid plane, carrying 35 tons of food, landed in government-held Aleppo on Tuesday, according to Syrian state media. The wealthy Gulf kingdom has raised some $50 million to help Turkey and Syria. Saudi planes have previously landed in Turkey, and Saudi trucks delivered some aid into impoverished rebel-held northwestern Syria.

Several other Arab countries have sent planes loaded with aid to government-held Syria, including Jordan and Egypt, the United Arab Emirates. Algeria, Iraq, Oman, Tunisia, Sudan and Libya have also delivered aid to Damascus.

The quake affected 10 provinces in Turkey that are home to some 13.5 million people, as well as a large area in northwest Syria that is home to millions.

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said late Monday that rescue work continued in Hatay province, along with Kahramanmaras — the epicenter — and Adiyaman. Rescue work appears to have ended in the remaining seven provinces.

The needs were immense, and incoming aid was still short of fulfilling them. Much of the water system in the quake-hit region was not working, raising the risks of contamination. Turkey's health minister said samples taken from dozens of points of the water system showed the water was unsuitable to drink.

More than 41,500 buildings were either destroyed or so damaged that they need to be demolished, according to Turkey's Ministry of Environment and Urbanization.

Many in Turkey have blamed faulty construction for the vast devastation, and authorities continued targeting contractors allegedly linked with buildings that collapsed. Turkey has introduced construction codes that meet earthquake-engineering standards, but experts say the codes are rarely enforced.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.