British search and rescue team sent in as 20,000 feared dead from Turkey and Syria earthquake

Britain has sent a 76-strong search and rescue team amid fears 20,000 people could have been killed in the most powerful earthquake to hit Turkey and Syria in nearly a century.

It was feared that thousands of people could still be trapped as night fell on Monday, with rescuers racing to find survivors in the rubble before already freezing winter temperatures dropped even further.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit on Monday morning before sunrise, when most people were sleeping. Entire apartment blocks collapsed and rescuers dug to reach friends and family with their bare hands.

A second earthquake, measuring 7.7, struck in the afternoon after dozens of aftershocks.

“We thought it was the apocalypse,” said Melisa Salman, a 23-year-old in the south-eastern Turkish city of Kahramanmaras.

The death toll across both countries was estimated to be at least 3,000 on Monday, but is expected to continue climbing on Tuesday.

More than 1,750 people were killed in Turkey and nearly 1,300 people died in Syria. The number of injured in Turkey and Syria, already ravaged by a 12-year civil war, was said to be at least 13,000.

The World Health Organization warned that the death toll could end up surpassing 20,000. Turkey’s last 7.8 magnitude tremor was in 1939, when 33,000 died.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, declared seven days of national mourning.

“Everyone is putting their heart and soul into efforts, although the winter season, cold weather and the earthquake happening during the night makes things more difficult,” he said.

There was a “mad rush” to get people out from under the rubble before temperatures dropped, said lnur Cevik, an adviser to the president.

There was so much “widespread devastation”, there was not enough rescue equipment  -so rescuers were forced to listen for sound of life amid the devastation, he told the BBC.

People were asked to stay silent “so that they can hear some people calling for help”, he said.

“Can anyone hear me?” shouted rescuers trying to find people in the province of Kahramanmaras, the epicentre.

In some places around Turkey, survivors could be heard screaming from beneath collapsed buildings.

Others live-streamed themselves in half-flattened buildings in the hope of alerting rescuers.

One middle-aged woman filmed herself and another woman trapped under bricks and cement blocks.

“Look, sister, look, we’re in a terrible situation,” the woman was heard crying. “Look at the ceiling right above us! Look at the pipes.”

Some 3,400 buildings were reduced to rubble in Turkey, while Syria announced dozens of collapses, as well as damage to archaeological sites in Aleppo.

Raed Ahmed, the head of Syria’s National Earthquake Centre, called it “the biggest earthquake recorded in the history of the centre”.

It was so powerful it was felt in parts of Greenland, more than 3,000 miles away, the Danish Geological Institute said.

The earthquake struck at 1.17am GMT at a depth of 11 miles close to the Turkish city of Gaziantep, which is home to around two million people.

The earthquake almost entirely destroyed the hilltop Gaziantep castle, a 2,000-year-old fortress in the centre of the city that was built during the Roman Empire.

About 45 countries offered aid and support to the two countries after Turkey issued a formal request to Nato for assistance and asked the EU for help.

British specialists with rescue equipment and four search dogs would arrive in Turkey on Monday night, the Government said.

London was also in contact with the United Nations about support for Syria, where UK-backed White Helmets launched rescue operations.

Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, said: 

Joe Biden, the US president, said: 

Volodymr Zelensky and Vladmir Putin, the warring presidents of Ukraine and Russia, offered support to Turkey.

Putin also offered aid and rescue teams to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader, who he backed with Russian forces during the civil war.

Al-Assad, with Russia’s support at the UN, only allows aid to enter Syria through a single border crossing.

The last rebel-held enclave of north-west Syria is one of the worst hit areas and there are calls to open up Syria’s borders for aid.

Israel has been in a state of war with Syria for decades. But it granted a Syrian request for assistance with earthquake relief, in a rare act of cooperation with an Arab state that refuses to recognise it.

Greece’s prime minister promised to make “every force available” to help Turkey, with whom it has long-running disputes over the occupation of Cyprus and migration.

Mr Erdogan is blocking Sweden’s application to join Nato after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over what he says is Stockholm’s support for “terrorist” Kurdish groups.

The Turkish veto hurts Finland, which plans to join the alliance at the same time as Sweden.

Ulf Kristersson, Sweden’s prime minister, sent his “deepest condolences” to Mr Erdogan.

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