Minister: Turkey rejected foreign rescue teams to test its own capacity

Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay spoke at a news conference in Van on Saturday. (Photo: Cihan)

October 30, 2011, Sunday/ 13:39:00

The Turkish government had not readily accepted search-and-rescue teams from foreign countries in the wake of a magnitude 7.2 quake in the eastern province of Van because it wanted to test its own capacity to respond to such a disaster, a government minister has said.

Turkey initially declined offers of aid from other countries, saying it could handle the disaster alone, but Ankara accepted many offers of help two days after the quake when it became apparent that quake victims were in need of immediate shelter as winter closes in. Countries, including Israel and neighboring Armenia, then sent tents and prefabricated houses to help victims. The United States also said on Friday it would supply tents, containers and prefabricated housing.

“We thank the international community. Countries such as Iran and Azerbaijan especially have displayed enormous sensitivity,” Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay said at a press conference on Saturday in Van, referring to the only two countries that dispatched search-and-rescue teams.

Atalay said the government has a list of countries that immediately made offers of help. “Of course, offers of search-and-rescue teams were kept on hold so that we could see our own potential,” Atalay said. Iran and Azerbaijan, on the other hand, acted on their own and sent their rescue teams. “Since we had sufficient search-and-rescue teams, we did not ask for foreign teams. But other countries are welcome to send tents, prefabricated houses and blankets,” he said.

On Thursday, the Azerbaijani team said it pulled 10 people out alive from beneath the rubble.

The government said on Sunday that the official death toll from the Oct. 23 Van quake went up to 596, while 4,152 people were injured.

Atalay said search-and-rescue operations taking place at four sites in Van's Erciş district, the area worst-hit by the quake, would be halted by Saturday evening.

As search-and-rescue efforts came to an end, shelter remains the main problem for survivors of the quake.

Overseeing the relief efforts, Atalay said 35,000 tents had been handed out so far -- about 3,500 of which were sent by other countries -- and there was no shortage. But people have complained that distribution was chaotic, tents were looted, and some were sold by profiteers on the black market.

"From now on we are determining the need for tents according to our nightly visits and not according to the people's demands," Atalay said.

Relief agencies have established tent cities on the edge of Erciş, a town of 100,000 people.

Atalay earlier said the emergency needs for all the affected -- at least in the main urban areas -- would be met by Saturday night, though supplying outlying villages would take longer. The government has said tents will only be given to families once their home has been deemed uninhabitable, but people are too scared to go back to their cracked walls with multiple aftershocks rattling the region.

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