Strong earthquake hits Turkey, up to 1,000 feared killed

Quake was magnitude 7.2, Turkish observatory says; Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to visit affected region.

Rescue workers after earthquake in Turkey 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Abdurrahman Antakyali/Anadolu Agency)
Rescue workers after earthquake in Turkey 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Abdurrahman Antakyali/Anadolu Agency)
VAN, Turkey - As many as 1,000 people were feared killed on Sunday when a powerful earthquake struck Turkey, collapsing dozens of buildings and pulling down phone and power lines in the southeast of the country, officials and witnesses said.
Emergency workers battled to rescue people trapped in buildings in the city of Van and surrounding districts on the banks of Lake Van, near Turkey's border with Iran.
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Following initial reports of the earthquake, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would offer  "any assistance required" to deal with the aftermath of the natural disaster but later said Turkey had declined Jerusalem's offers for aid.
President Shimon Peres telephoned Turkish President Abdullah Gul Sunday and offered sent his condolences for those killed in the quake.
Peres told his Turkish counterpart, "The State of Israel shares your pain in the aftermath of the earthquake." He added, "I am speaking as a human, as a Jew and as an Israeli who remembers and is well aware of the historic ties between our peoples. It is from that place that I send, in the name of my entire people, condolences to the families of those killed."
"We heard cries and groaning from underneath the debris, we are waiting for the rescue teams to arrive," Halil Celik, a young man who lived in the center of the city, told Reuters as he stood beside the ruins of building that had collapsed before his eyes.
"All of a sudden, a quake tore down the building in front of me. All the bystanders, we all ran to the building and rescued two injured people from the ruins."
Turkey's Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute said the magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck at 1041 GMT and was five kilometers (three miles) deep.
Around 10 buildings collapsed in Van city and about 25-30 buildings were brought to the ground in the nearby district of Ercis, Turkisyh Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay told reporters.
"We estimate around 1,000 buildings are damaged and our estimate is for hundreds of lives lost. It could be 500 or 1,000," Kandilli Observatory general manager Mustafa Erdik told a news conference.
Cihan news agency reported that there were more than 50 dead bodies at a hospital in Ercis, a town near Van, near the quake's epicenter.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was traveling to Van and the cabinet was expected to discuss the quake at a meeting called for Monday morning.
"A lot of buildings collapsed, many people were killed, but we don't know the number. We are waiting for emergency help, it's very urgent," Zulfukar Arapoglu, the mayor of Ercis, told news broadcaster NTV.
Cihan news agency said that of the dead, 30 had been killed in Ercis district where some 80 buildings had collapsed.
"We need tents urgently and rescue teams. We don't have any ambulances, and we only have one hospital. We have many killed and injured," Arapoglu said.
Turkey's Red Crescent said one of its local teams was helping to rescue people from a student residence in Ercis. It said it was sending tents, blankets and food to the region.
More than 20 aftershocks shook the area, further unsettling residents who ran out on the streets when the initial strong quake struck. Television pictures showed rooms shaking and furniture falling to the ground as people ran from one building.
Dozens of emergency workers and residents crawled over a multi-story building in Van as they searched for any people trapped in side.
Elsewhere, vehicles were crushed in the street by falling masonry while dazed-looking people wandered past.
Some 50 injured people were taken to hospital in Van, state-run Anatolian news agency reported, but it did not give details on how serious their injuries were.
Turkish media said phone lines and electricity had been cut off. The quake's epicenter was at the village of Tabanli, 20 km north of Van city, Kandilli said.
In Hakkari, about 100 km (60 miles) south of Van, a Reuters correspondent said the building he was in swayed for about 10 seconds during the quake. But there was no immediate sign of casualties or damage in the town, which is about two and a half hours drive through the mountains from Van.
Major geological fault lines cross Turkey and small earthquakes are a near daily occurrence. Two large quakes in 1999 killed more than 20,000 people in northwest Turkey.
An earthquake struck Van province in November 1976 with 5,291 confirmed dead. Two people were killed and 79 injured in May when an earthquake shook Simav in northwest Turkey.