Prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for scores of developers as the death toll from last week’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria tops 33,000 and the security situation in some areas of the disaster zone deteriorates.
Turkish investigators have identified 131 people of interest in a wide-ranging probe into the catastrophe, handing out 113 arrest warrants, Fuat Oktay, vice-president, said in a press conference early on Sunday. Several people have already been detained, according to state-run media.
The inquiry, which is being led by almost 150 local prosecutors’ offices, is the latest sign of how Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is attempting to address mounting criticism over lax enforcement of building standards, which many seismology and civil-engineering experts say substantially worsened the toll from last Monday’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake.
The disaster comes just three months before elections that analysts expect to be Erdoğan’s toughest in his two decades in power.
At least 1mn individual units have been damaged by the earthquake, and a series of aftershocks that followed, said Murat Kurum, Turkish environment and urban planning minister, whose teams have so far scoured more than 17,000 buildings.
The death toll in Turkey reached 29,605 on Sunday, according to the country’s crisis management agency. In Syria, 3,553 people have died, data from state media in regime-controlled parts of the country and civil defence forces in rebel-held areas showed.
Thousands of rescuers were still attempting to track down survivors with earthmoving equipment being deployed to clear crushed concrete and steel in many areas of the stricken region. Local television, online websites and newspapers showed pictures of survivors being pulled from the rubble after being trapped for 150 hours in freezing cold temperatures, including a seven-year-old boy in the Anatolian city of Adıyaman and an 85-year-old woman in Antakya, Hatay Province.
Traffic jams had formed on roads in and out of Hatay, one of the hardest-hit regions. Trucks brought in supplies and machinery, while residents left to seek shelter in villages with low-rise housing or cities and towns less affected by the disaster. Queues formed at petrol stations on the edge of the province. Makeshift soup kitchens served food at the roadside.
The security situation in parts of the disaster zone remained fraught on Sunday, after some rescue teams suspended operations over concerns for their safety. German rescue workers reported that gunfire was heard amid looting and growing tensions in parts of Hatay.
Schools in the 10 affected Turkish provinces will remain closed until March 1, while those in the rest of the country will reopen on February 20, said education minister Mahmut Özer. Some universities are switching to online learning so dormitories can be used to house survivors.
The international response to the incident has also accelerated. Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani met Erdoğan on Sunday. Greece’s foreign minister Nikos Dendias travelled to southern Turkey on Sunday along with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
Meanwhile, Germany said it would issue visas to victims of the earthquake. Nancy Faeser, interior minister, told Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the authorities wanted to enable “Turkish or Syrian families in Germany to be able to bring their close relatives from the disaster area, in an unbureaucratic way, so they can have a roof over their heads and receive medical treatment. With regular visas that are distributed quickly and are valid for three months.”
She said the system of providing visas would be set up by the interior and foreign ministries. There are about 3mn ethnic Turks living in Germany, about half of whom have Turkish citizenship. Many of them are the descendants of Gastarbeiter or guest workers who came from Turkey to take jobs in German industry during the 1970s and 1980s.
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan