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Erdogan tours disaster zone in Turkey as death toll passes 11,000


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in his country’s earthquake-ravaged south on Wednesday as the death toll passed 11,000 and rescuers in neighboring Syria said they had found colleagues among the dead.

Monday’s powerful earthquake and aftershocks razed towns and cities across Turkey and Syria, exacerbating existing humanitarian crises and creating new ones.

During a visit to Hatay, one of the most devastated provinces, Erdogan announced that the death toll in Turkey had passed 9,000 and nearly 53,000 people had been injured.

He promised that destroyed towns and villages would be rebuilt within a year, though the task will be huge — the number of collapsed buildings has risen to more than 6,444, he said.

Earlier, in Kahramanmaras, the city at the epicenter of the earthquake, Erdogan expressed a tone of reassurance. “Our citizens need not worry; we will never leave them without shelter,” he said, describing plans to help the newly homeless by providing hotel beds.

The state-owned airline Turkish Airlines said it had evacuated nearly 20,000 people from the disaster area, with another 30,000 passengers scheduled to fly that day.

As donations pour in from around the world, aid groups say the needs are overwhelming. In the southeastern devastated city of Adiyaman, chaotic and makeshift distribution areas for humanitarian supplies sprang up along the central boulevard on Wednesday.

A huge queue of people formed at the entrance of the city to receive the distributed rations of water. At another help point near the city center, 60-year-old Esref Tuncer showed up hoping to find blankets, but walked away with a pair of thin socks and two sweaters.

Other families ran around him trying to secure one of the large tents sent by the Turkish disaster relief authority, as fighting broke out around the truck.

Erdogan said on Wednesday the Turkish government would distribute 10,000 Turkish lira, or $530, to “each of our families,” but it was not immediately clear who would qualify for the aid or how they would claim it.

In government-controlled areas of neighboring Syria, a country embroiled in civil war for 12 years, the quakes killed at least 1,262 people and injured another 2,285, state media reported on Wednesday. Meanwhile, rescuers in the besieged, rebel-held northwest said they had recorded more than 1,400 dead and 2,700 injured.

They also found their own bodies in the rubble. The Syrian civil defense group known as the White Helmets, which operates in areas beyond government control, said Wednesday that four of his volunteers and their families were among the victims of the earthquake.

Why is it so difficult to help the victims of the earthquake in Syria?

Doctors Without Borders said one of its staff was found dead under the rubble of his home in Idlib province. “We are deeply shocked and saddened by the impact of this disaster on the thousands of people affected by it, including our colleagues and their families,” Sebastien Gay, head of the MSF mission in Syria, said in a statement.

The hopes of survival for those still trapped under the rubble faded by the hour as temperatures hovered near freezing. Rescuers have traveled from around the world to assist in the effort, a process accelerated by the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism that has allowed the body to coordinate the deployment of more than 1,100 rescuers from 21 countries.

Syria tried to do the same on Wednesday, but it was unclear to what effect. President Bashar al-Assad’s government has been a pariah among many Western governments, who have charged him with crimes against humanity for bombing densely populated civilian areas, including the medical facilities that served them during the war.

In the rebel-held area of ​​the northwest, no relief supplies have crossed the border since the quakes, blocked by a likely combination of real damage to infrastructure along the one road approved for UN use, and political obstruction on the part of the government of Assad and his allies.

Live Updates: Turkey, Syria earthquake death toll surpasses 11,000 as rescuers battle bitter cold

Yet the needs on both sides of the conflict line are overwhelming.

“Nearly 90 percent of the population depends on humanitarian aid,” said Fabrizio Carboni, regional director for the Near and Middle East of the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Just a few weeks ago we were working on a cholera response, and then there’s the climate crisis. The list of humanitarian challenges, even considered in isolation, would be enormous. And they come one after the other.”

The World Health Organization on Wednesday warned of a “massive, long-lasting” impact on health care in Turkey and Syria, saying it needed to prevent a possible wave of respiratory infections.

WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told Sky News aid groups were sending supplies for surgical and trauma care as rescuers continued to pull people out of the rubble. But the specter of a wider health crisis also loomed, she said, making it important to quickly provide other health services, including wheelchairs and medicines for chronic diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension.

“There’s so much long-term change in people’s health,” she said. “We saw a baby born under the rubble yesterday. Babies will be born to people sheltering in cars in the coming days.” Harris said early assessments showed damage to at least 15 hospitals and hundreds of health facilities in the two countries.

In Turkey, the health minister said on Wednesday that 77 field hospitals had been set up in 10 regions in the south. “We need to look at preventing infectious diseases,” Harris said. “People are packed in the cold in difficult conditions, whose immune systems are under enormous pressure.”

Loveluck reported from Baghdad, Fahim from Adiyaman, Turkey, and Sands and Francis from London. Amar Nadhir in Bucharest and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.

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