GAZIANTEP, Turkey – Turkish authorities widened their crackdown on people suspected of being involved in shabby building practices and looting in towns in southern Turkey devastated by last week’s earthquakes, and made dozens of new arrests, as hope dwindled to find many more survivors in collapsed buildings.
Relatives of some of the victims said they feared government investigations into why some buildings collapsed and others remained standing would focus on low-level criminals, not politically connected builders and government officials approving questionable projects.
“All contractors, all builders of these houses, all officials, everyone who signed permits for this type of building should be punished very severely,” said Suna Ozturk, 57, whose daughter and two grandchildren are still missing in the southwestern city from Antalya. “There were so many young people with education, jobs and life.”
Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag vowed last week that no one would escape punishment for the negligence that led to buildings collapsing.
The death toll from the quakes has reached over 35,000, with 31,600 deaths in Turkey and 3,500 in Syria, according to authorities, who say they expect the death toll to rise sharply again.
A man sleeps on a sofa near a collapsed building in Hatay, Turkey.
Photo: Burak Kara/Getty Images
People wait by fires as they watch rescue teams search a destroyed building in Adiyaman, Turkey.
Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Murat Kurum, Turkey’s Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change Minister, said on Saturday that of 171,882 buildings in 10 provinces inspected so far in the earthquake zone, 24,921 had collapsed or been badly damaged — about 14% of the buildings inspected.
Anger at the government grew after authorities approved the demolition of an office in Gaziantep owned by Mr Kurum’s ministry, a move against which local residents have filed charges aimed at destroying construction documents.
The ministry said the building had been demolished due to severe damage and all documents kept there would be moved to the archives. On Sunday, however, folders with files were dragged into the rubble, their papers fluttering between concrete and rebar.
“Since day one, one of the main concerns of the public has been that the evidence of the damage caused by the earthquake will be withheld and that the perpetrators will not be identified or punished,” the executive board of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations said on Monday.
The organization said it would help gather evidence and file lawsuits against anyone blamed for approving improper projects, calling the massive earthquake area “a complete crime scene.”
Prosecutors in the Turkish city of Malatya, 150 miles north of the quake epicenter near Gaziantep, arrested 31 people in connection with an investigation into construction defects that saw some buildings leveled while others remained standing, according to state media.
In Gaziantep, prosecutors on Sunday visited the site of a collapsed building whose contractor was among those arrested. A police cordon confined the public there to a dirt parking lot across the street while earth movers dug through the rubble.
Hundreds of people in Gaziantep – relatives of victims and onlookers – ate food from an aid distribution tent or rested in cars and awaited news from survivors. A police officer stopped a Wall Street Journal reporter from filming excavation work.
Search and rescue forces, including those from Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan, mostly stood by and did nothing. Occasionally workers silenced the crowd to listen to the sounds of people buried under the rubble.
As of last Monday, they’ve pulled out alive just a handful of the building’s estimated 800 residents, said a neighbor who helped with early rescue efforts.
A White Helmet volunteer stands under rubble in northern Syria. The delivery of much-needed relief supplies to the country continues to be hampered.
Photo: WHITE HELMETS/via Portal
A man sits on a collapsed building in Hatay, Turkey.
Photo: Burak Kara/Getty Images
According to Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay, at least 113 other builders, architects and engineers are already in custody. In Antakya, soldiers, police and first responders continued to remove bodies from a building complex that collapsed, trapping hundreds of people inside. Among those arrested is a contractor involved in the project.
Relatives of the victims, waiting steps from the rubble for a chance to identify loved ones, denounced the builders of the luxurious Ronesans residence and officials who approved the project.
Ambulance sirens, which rang out around the clock for the first few days after the quake, have fallen silent across much of the city. A few rescue teams were still going door-to-door calling people in the rubble, usually without hearing any replies.
UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths visited rebel-held northwest Syria on Monday. He said the rescue phase was coming to an end and proposed a humanitarian program to help Turkey and Syria over the next three months. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Turkish Airlines said on Monday that it had resumed flights from Hatay, a province in the country’s earthquake-hit southern region. “Our flights from Hatay Airport have resumed,” Yahya Ustun, a spokesman for the company, said on Twitter.
The airport has been closed since the earthquake due to damage to the runway. The reopening could relieve overcrowding at Gaziantep Airport, one of the few in the earthquake zone to remain undamaged last week.
In Syria, the delivery of much-needed aid continued to be hampered by the few border crossings from Turkey to bring aid to the earthquake-hit area, which is mostly controlled by rebels, said Najat Rochdi, the UN’s deputy special envoy for Syria. “There is an urgent need to open more access points and get more help to the people who need help urgently,” she said in a tweet on Monday.
—Jared Malsin, Elvan Kivilcim, and Vildan Ay contributed to this article.
Write to Stephen Kalin at [email protected], Daniella Cheslow at [email protected], and David S. Cloud at [email protected]
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