Earthquake death toll passes 45,000; many still missing in flattened apartments

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ANTAKYA/KAHRAMANMARAS, Turkey, Feb 18 (Reuters) – More than 45,000 people have been killed in the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria, and the toll is expected to soar with some 264,000 apartments in Turkey destroyed and many still missing in the country’s worst modern disaster.

Eleven days after the quake hit, three survivors were dug out from the rubble in Turkey on Friday. The death toll in Turkey stands at 39,672, while neighbouring Syria has reported more than 5,800 deaths. Syria’s toll has not changed for days.

Mosques around the world on Friday performed absentee funeral prayers for the dead in Turkey and Syria, many of whom could not receive full burial rites given the enormity of the disaster. 

While many international rescue teams have left the vast quake zone, domestic teams continued to search through flattened buildings on Saturday hoping to find more survivors who defied the odds. Experts say most rescues occur in the 24 hours following an earthquake.

Hakan Yasinoglu, in his 40s, was rescued in the southern province of Hatay, 278 hours after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck in the dead of night on Feb. 6, the Istanbul Fire Brigade said.

Earlier, Osman Halebiye, 14, and Mustafa Avci, 34, were saved in Turkey’s historic city of Antakya, known in ancient times as Antioch. As Avci was carried away, he was put on a video call with his parents, who showed him his newborn baby. 

“I had completely lost all hope. This is a true miracle. They gave me my son back. I saw the wreckage and I thought nobody could be saved alive from there,” his father said.

An exhausted Avci was later reunited with his wife Bilge and daughter Almile at a hospital in Mersin.

Aid organisations say the survivors will need help for months to come with so much crucial infrastructure destroyed.

In neighbouring Syria, already shattered by more than a decade of civil war, the bulk of fatalities have been in the northwest, an area controlled by insurgents who are at war with President Bashar al-Assad – a conflict that has complicated efforts to aid people affected by the earthquake. 

The sides clashed overnight for the first time since the disaster, with government forces shelling the outskirts of Atareb, a rebel-held town badly hit by the earthquake, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Friday.

Reuters could not independently verify the report.

Thousands of Syrians who had sought refuge in Turkey from their country’s civil war have returned to their homes in the war zone – at least for now.

ANGER GROWS

Neither Turkey nor Syria have said how many people are still missing following the quake. 

For families still waiting to retrieve relatives in Turkey, there is growing anger over what they see as corrupt building practices and deeply flawed urban development that resulted in thousands of homes and businesses disintegrating.

One such building was the Ronesans Rezidans (Renaissance Residence), which keeled over in Antakya, killing hundreds.

“It was said to be earthquake-safe, but you can see the result,” said Hamza Alpaslan, 47, whose brother had lived in the apartment block. “It’s in horrible condition. There is neither cement nor proper iron in it. It’s a real hell.” 

Turkey has promised to investigate anyone suspected of responsibility for the collapse of buildings and has ordered the detention of more than 100 suspects, including developers.

The United Nations on Thursday appealed for more than $1 billion in funds for the Turkish relief operation, and has launched a $400 million appeal for Syrians.

(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun, Ece Toksabay, Tom Perry, Abir Al Ahmar, Henriette Chacar, Jonathan Spicer and Suhaib Salem; Writing by Tom Perry, Rosalba O’Brien and Michael Perry; Editing by William Mallard)

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