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Turkey winds down quake rescue as Blinken pledges fresh US aid

By AFP - Feb 20,2023 - Last updated at Feb 21,2023

A man rides his motorcycle past collapsed buildings in the city of Antakya on Sunday (AFP photo)

ANTAKYA, Turkey — Turkey on Sunday said rescue efforts following last week's devastating earthquake had ended in all but two provinces as visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced $100 million in fresh humanitarian aid.

The 7.8-magnitude tremor that struck southeastern Turkey and northern Syria on February 6 has killed more than 44,000 people, with the likelihood of finding survivors two weeks on extremely remote.

The head of Turkey's disaster agency Yunus Sezer on Sunday said search and rescue efforts had been completed in all provinces apart from Hatay and Kahramanmaras, the earthquake's epicentre.

They were continuing at around 40 buildings in the provinces on the 14th day, said Sezer, but he expected the number to fall by late Sunday.

The agency head also said Turkey's death toll had risen to 40,689. The total toll including Syria is now 44,377.

Blinken also met members of the White Helmets rescue group, which operates in rebel-held areas of Syria, and discussed the relief effort there.

 

 'Long-term effort' 

 

The winding-down of rescue operations came as Blinken arrived in Turkey to show solidarity with a NATO ally and announce a new aid package worth $100 million.

Washington's top diplomat met his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu at Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, through which the United States has shipped aid.

Blinken then accompanied Cavusoglu in a helicopter to view the damage wrought by the disaster in Hatay province.

The new aid "will be moving soon. Sadly, it's less about search and rescue but long-term recovery," Blinken told reporters.

"This is going to be a long-term effort. It's going to take a massive effort to rebuild but we're committed to supporting that effort," he said.

Washington has now contributed $185 million in assistance to Turkey and Syria, he added.

The trip had been planned before the earthquake, the worst natural disaster to hit Turkey in its post-Ottoman history.

On Twitter, the White Helmets group said they had met Blinken in southern Turkey discuss “the response to the earthquake in NW #Syria, the humanitarian situation, ways to support affected civilians, and mechanisms for achieving early recovery”.

The group’s Deputy Director Farouk Habib told Blinken he was grateful for US support after the quake, while Blinken offered condolences and commended the rescuers’ “heroic efforts”, the group tweeted.

Blinken, also referred to their meeting on Twitter, adding: “Thank you for your heroic efforts to rescue Syrians after the earthquakes.”

“The United States is proud to support you and other organisations providing life-saving aid in response to this tragedy.”

 

‘We still have hope’ 

 

In the devastated south-eastern city of Antakya, three bodies were retrieved from one building with a woman still thought to be inside, an official briefed on the recovery effort told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The smell of decaying bodies and a cloud of dust hung in the air at the recovery site just off Republic Avenue in the city’s northwest.

An excavator picked through the wreckage in front of the four-floor apartment building, whose front had been ripped away by the earthquake.

Husseyin Yavuz told AFP in Antakya that he had been waiting days to find his cousin’s body under the rubble and insisted the search operations should continue.

“We’ve been here since the day of the earthquake. With God’s help, we still have hope,” he said.

Sitting next to Yavuz, Adile Dilmet was on the verge of tears as she described waiting outside in the cold for more than a week as the authorities banned the population from entering their homes.

But she told AFP people were also told to empty their houses before the buildings were demolished, and called for the bodies to be recovered first.

“We’re suffering here... What are we going to do?”

 

Rocky relations 

 

The schedule for Blinken’s visit — his first to Turkey since taking office in 2021, included meeting officials coordinating the delivery of US aid and seeing the humanitarian effort under way in Hatay.

US-Turkey relations have been strained in recent years, but Washington has since viewed Ankara as helpful for its mediatory role between Russia and Ukraine since Moscow’s invasion last year.

Blinken will hold talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the capital Ankara on Monday, where two issues will likely be high on the agenda.

Turkey wants to buy F-16 fighter jets but the sale is being blocked in the US Congress due to concerns over Turkey’s human rights record and threats to neighbouring Greece.

Blinken will also likely bring up Turkey’s refusal to ratify Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership applications.

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