people being rescued in earthquake debris

© Reuters Rescue workers free people trapped under debris in a village near Van. In Ercis there are reports of many people trapped.

As many as 1,000 people are feared to have died yesterday following a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit Turkey’s eastern Van province.

According to the US Geological Survey the quake struck at lunchtime, causing widespread panic. Television images showed people rushing to collapsed buildings, desperately trying to move rubble and debris by hand in hope of finding survivors.

Reports last night indicated that the death toll had already reached 85, with hundreds more injured as buildings collapsed. The worst hit town is Ercis, home to 75,000, where 45 people are already confirmed killed and 150 injured, according to the Turkish television news channel NTV. Up to 30 buildings collapsed, including at least one dormitory.

Zulfikar Arapoglu, the mayor of Ercis, told NTV: “There are so many dead. Several buildings have collapsed. There is too much destruction. We need urgent aid. We need medics.”

Rescue and aid workers were bracing themselves for a much heavier body count by this morning. Professor Mustafa Erdik, director of the Kandilli seismological institute in Istanbul, told reporters: “Five hundred to 1,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the quake.” That estimate was determined by the structure of the housing in the area and the strength of the quake.

The epicentre was reportedly in the town of Tabanli, 17km from Van, the provincial capital. At least 50 injured people were being treated at the state hospital in Van, according to the Anatolian News Agency, and a five-star hotel had collapsed, along with other buildings.

As many as eight aftershocks were reported, including one with a magnitude of 5.6.

The quake was also felt in neighbouring Iran and Iraq. Iran’s state-run Fars news agency reported that a 4.6 magnitude earthquake was felt in the western town of Khoy, near the border with Turkey. There were no reports of injuries.

Ercis, however, appears to have suffered the most damage. Veysel Keser, a local official, called for aid. “There are many people under the rubble,” he told NTV. “People are in agony. We can hear their screams for help. We need urgent help.”

Turkey sits on one of the world’s most active seismic zones. Crisscrossed by fault-lines, the country has experienced numerous deadly earthquakes in recent years.

In 1999, more than 17,000 people were killed by a 7.6 earthquake in Izmit, not far from Istanbul. In the same year, 894 people were killed by a 7.2 tremor in Duzce, one of Turkey’s western provinces.

Last year, 57 people were killed by a 6.0 magnitude earthquake in Elazig province, in eastern Turkey. The country’s largest recorded earthquake occurred in 1939, when in estimated 160,000 people died in the eastern town of Erzincan.

Israel, whose relations with Turkey have plunged to a new low this year, moved swiftly yesterday to offer Ankara the help of its military and rescue workers in coping with the earthquake. The move was the first positive gesture since Turkey ordered most Israeli diplomats to leave in September because of Israel’s refusal to apologise for the fatal shooting of nine Turks aboard a Gaza-bound flotilla in May last year.