Last updated: October 24, 2011 6:50 am

Powerful earthquake rocks eastern Turkey

A powerful earthquake in eastern Turkey has killed at least 217 people with fears of a much higher eventual death toll, as emergency teams scrambled to reach the afflicted region.

The 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the area near the city of Van, close to the Iranian border, although neighbouring towns and villages were among the worst hit. Idris Naim Sahin, Turkey’s interior minister, said on Monday that 100 people had been killed in Van and a further 117 in the badly hit town of Ercis, 100km further north.

“We don’t know where to put the dead bodies,” Eda Ekisoglu, a nurse at the state hospital in Ercis, told the CNN Turk television channel on Sunday.

Nato said it stood ready to provide aid if necessary, as did Israel, Turkey’s former ally, from which Ankara has become increasingly estranged in recent years. Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, also called Abdullah Gul on Sunday to offer his condolences.

A Turkish foreign ministry official said Turkey had received offers of help from dozens of countries, but had so far declined assistance from all of them, according to Reuters.

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Mustafa Erdik, the head of Istanbul’s Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute, estimated that about 700 people had been killed, in contrast to the official count of 138. But, cautioning that the estimates were extremely provisional, he added that the death toll could be as high as 500-1,000.

The institute added that the earthquake, which hit at 10:41 GMT, was just 5km below the ground – relatively close to the surface, a factor likely to increase the damage it wreaked. There were numerous aftershocks.

“I am afraid it is going to be heavy,” Ahmet Lutfu Aker, the chairman of Turkey’s Red Crescent, said of the likely casualties. He added that his organisation had sent tents, blankets and food.

Initial reports indicated that the worst hit area was Van’s neighbouring town of Ercis. The earthquake was also felt in Armenia and Iran, but early reports did not indicate significant damage in either country.

Much of Turkey is earthquake-prone, including Istanbul, the country’s largest city, where thousands of people were killed in an earthquake in 1999. But the area around Van has long been considered particularly at risk.

Mr Erdik said Turkey’s humanitarian services had responded with unprecedented speed. But, since many of the villages in the mountainous region are isolated, it may take time for the scale of the damage to emerge.

The disaster struck Turkey at a time when the country is already in mourning for 24 soldiers killed by militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers party, or PKK, last week. In response, Ankara has sent troops over the border to Northern Iraq, where it said it had killed 49 members of the PKK, which Turkey, the US and the European Union all proscribe as a terrorist organisation.

Additional reporting by Funja Guler

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