ANKARA // At least 85 people died when a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck eastern Turkey yesterday.
Desperate survivors dug into the rubble with their bare hands, trying to rescue the trapped and injured from buildings that had collapsed into piles of twisted steel and chunks of concrete.
At least 59 people were killed and 150 injured in the town of Ercis, 25 died in the provincial centre of Van and a child was killed in the nearby province of Bitlis.
Ercis, a city of 75,000 close to the Iranian border, was the hardest hit. It lies on the Ercis Fault in one of Turkey's most earthquake-prone zones. Van, 90 kilometres to the south, also suffered substantial damage.
As many as 80 buildings collapsed in Ercis, including a dormitory, and 10 buildings collapsed in Van. Some roads also caved in.
"There are so many dead. Several buildings have collapsed. There is too much destruction," Ercis mayor Zulfikar Arapoglu said. "We need urgent aid. We need medics."
Rescuers in Van scrambled to find survivors in a flattened eight-storey building that had shops on the ground floor. Residents sobbed outside the ruins, hoping that missing relatives would be rescued.
"My wife and child are inside! My four-month-old baby is inside!" one young man cried.
Witnesses said eight people were rescued from the rubble, but frequent aftershocks were hampering search efforts.
Serious damage and casualties were also reported in the district of Celebibag, near Ercis.
"There are many people under the rubble," said Veysel Keser, mayor of Celebibag. "People are in agony. We can hear their screams for help. We need urgent help."
He said many buildings had collapsed, including student accommodation, hotels and petrol stations.
The quake's epicentre was in the village of Tabanli, 17 kilometres from Van. It struck at 10.41am local time, at a depth of 20 kilometres, according to the US Geological Survey.
Turkey lies in one of the world's most active seismic zones and is crossed by numerous fault lines. Lake Van, where yesterday's earthquake hit, is in the country's most earthquake-prone region.
US scientists recorded eight aftershocks within three hours of the quake, including two with a magnitude of 5.6.
The Kandilli observatory, Turkey's main seismography centre, said the quake was capable of killing many people.
"We are estimating a death toll between 500 and 1,000," said Mustafa Erdik, head of the Kandilli observatory.
In Van, terrified residents spilled into the streets as rescue workers and residents using their bare hands and shovels struggled to find people believed to be trapped under collapsed buildings. At least 50 people were treated in the courtyard of the state hospital.
There was no immediate information about a recently restored 10th century Armenian church, Akdamar Church, which is perched on a rocky island in the nearby Lake Van.
Houses also collapsed in the province of Bitlis, where an eight-year-old girl was killed. The quake also toppled the minarets of two mosques in the nearby province of Mus.
Van's airport was damaged and planes were being diverted to nearby cities.
The earthquake also shook buildings in Armenia. In the Armenian capital of Yerevan, 160 kilometres from Ercis, people rushed into the streets fearing buildings would collapse but no damage or injuries were reported. A devastating earthquake in Armenia in 1988 killed 25,000 people.
Yesterday's quake also caused panic among residents in several Iranian towns close to the Turkish border, and cut phone links and caused cracks in buildings in the city of Chaldoran.
The quake was also felt in Salmas, Maku, Khoi and several other towns in Iran but no damage was reported.
Israel yesterday offered humanitarian assistance despite a rift in relations since the 2010 Israeli navy raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that killed nine Turks. In September, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and suspended military ties because Israel has not apologised. Israel has sent rescue teams to Turkey after past earthquakes in times of closer ties.
Turkey suffers frequent earthquakes. In 1999, two earthquakes with a magnitude of more than 7 struck north-western Turkey, killing about 18,000 people.
More recently, a 6.0-magnitude quake in March 2010 killed 51 people in eastern Turkey, and in 2003, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake killed 177 people in the south-eastern city of Bingol.
Turkey's worst earthquake in the last century was in 1939 in the eastern city of Erzincan, causing an estimated 160,000 deaths.
Istanbul, Turkey's largest city with more than 12 million people, lies in north-western Turkey near a major fault line. Authorities say Istanbul is ill-prepared for a major earthquake and experts have warned that crowding and faulty construction could lead to the deaths of more than 40,000 people if a major earthquake struck the city.
* Associated Press