ERCIS, Turkey (Reuters) - Rescuers pulled a two-week-old baby girl alive from a collapsed apartment block on Tuesday as they battled to find survivors of an earthquake in eastern Turkey that killed more than 400 people and made tens of thousands homeless.
The baby’s mother and a grandmother were also brought out alive on stretchers to jubilant cries from onlookers who followed the dramatic rescue under cold, pouring rain.
“It’s a miracle!” said Senol Yigit, the uncle of the baby, Azra, whose name means “purity” or “untouched” in Arabic. “I’m so happy. What can I say? We have been waiting for two days. We had lost hope when we first saw the building,” he said sobbing.
However, hope of finding more people alive under the rubble faded with every passing hour as more bodies were found.
The death toll from Sunday’s 7.2-magnitude quake rose to 459, with 1,352 injured, the Disaster and Emergency Administration said. The final count was likely to rise further as many people were still missing and 2,262 buildings had collapsed.
Thousands prepared to spend a third night in freezing temperatures in crowded tents or huddled around fires across a quake-prone region in Van province, near the Iranian border.
With the government facing criticism over shortages of tents and other relief items, Turkey requested prefabricated housing and tents from more than 30 countries, including Israel, a Foreign Ministry official told Reuters.
Ties between the two former strategic allies have been frayed since Israeli commandos killed nine Turks on board a Gaza-bound flotilla last year.
Many victims accused the central government of poor organization and of being slow in delivering aid to a region inhabited mostly by minority Kurds and home to a separatist insurgency against the Turkish state. Fighting broke out among desperate victims to grab tents from overwhelmed aid workers.
Spelling more trouble for authorities, gunshots were heard as prisoners set fire to a jail and fought with guards in Van, two days after a jailbreak in which 200 were reported to have escaped in the chaos after the quake.
The ruling AK Party has apologized for distribution problems. Urgency to offer shelters was heightened by worsening weather, with the first winter snow less than a month away.
“We have no tents, everybody is living outdoors. Van has collapsed psychologically, life has stopped. Tens of thousands are on the streets. Everybody is in panic,” Kemal Balci, a construction worker, said as he awaited news of friends injured in the quake at a hospital in Van.
“Aid has been arriving late. Van has been reduced to zero. We have no jobs, no bread, no water and there are nine members in my family. If the government doesn’t give a hand to Van it will be like Afghanistan. Van has been pushed back 100 years.”
The quake, Turkey’s most powerful in a decade, is one more affliction for Kurds, the dominant ethnic group in impoverished southeast Turkey, where more than 40,000 people have been killed in a three-decade-long separatist insurgency.
In an escalation of hostilities, Turkish warplanes struck targets overnight in northern Iraq, where the separatist militants have bases.
About 500 soldiers have crossed the border with armored vehicles following an attack last week by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters that killed 24 Turkish troops, security sources said.
Quake rescue efforts focused on Ercis, a town of 100,000 that was worst hit, and Van, the provincial capital, have been hampered by power cuts and by more than 500 aftershocks, including one with a magnitude of 5.4 on Tuesday.
Emergency workers extracted the infant girl from the wreckage two days after she was buried with her mother under an apartment block.
The mother was clutching the child to her chest when they were reached by rescuers, who then set about rescuing the mother and a grandmother who were also still alive.
“We’re going to get them out soon,” a rescuer assured the other grandmother, whose eyes brimmed with tears of joy at the survival of her grandchild, who was born prematurely.
Elsewhere, exhausted workers used machinery, jackhammers, shovels, pick axes and bare hands to comb through rubble. Every so often, they would shout for silence and generators and diggers would stop, straining to hear voices under rubble. Seconds later the drone of the machinery would start again.
The Turkish Red Crescent said it is preparing temporary shelter for about 40,000 people, although there are no reliable figures for the homeless.
Officials said 12,000 more tents would reach Van on Tuesday for the neediest, particularly in villages.
“Life has become hell. We are outside, the weather is cold. There are no tents,” said Emin Kayram, 53, sitting by a campfire in Ercis after spending the night with his family of eight in a van parked nearby. His nephew was trapped in the debris of a building behind him, where rescue workers dug through the night.
“He is 18, a student. He is still stuck in there. This is the third day but you can’t lose hope. We have to wait here.”
How fast Ankara manages to deliver aid and long-term relief to the survivors might have political consequences in a region plagued by poverty and the Kurdish insurgency, analysts said.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who won a third consecutive term with a strong majority in a June election, has promised to push reforms in parliament and rewrite the constitution to address long-time Kurdish grievances in an effort to end violence. Erdogan traveled to the region on Sunday, and President Abdullah Gul has also announced plans to visit.
“If we want to win the hearts of our brothers of Kurdish origin, we should act now. We should beat the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) with this approach, which is more effective than arms,” leading analyst Mehmet Ali Birand wrote.
Fighting broke out among a crowd of around 200-300 people
after a truck arrived in Van city and started handing out tents next to a cemetery. Women were hit and kicked as people tried to force their way through to get access to the tents, while police tried in vain to establish order.
“There is absolutely no coordination, you have to step on people to get a tent,” said jobless Suleyman Akbulut, 18.
“The prime minister runs for help when it’s Palestine or Somalia, sends ships to Palestine, almost goes to war with Israel for the sake of Palestinians, but he doesn’t move a muscle when it comes to his own people,” said Emrullah, a young man of about 18.
Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia, Daren Butler and Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Michael Roddy