Photo: AP

As the death toll in Turkey and Syria passed 25,000, Ankara was coming under growing criticism for its slow response and tolerance of shoddy construction.

 Photo: AP
Photo: AP

 Photo: AP

As the death toll in Turkey and Syria passed 25,000, Ankara was coming under growing criticism for its slow response and tolerance of shoddy construction.

Turkish officials on Saturday began detaining dozens of contractors they blamed for some of the building collapses in Monday’s devastating earthquake, as anger swelled over the government’s slow rescue effort and the death toll in the country surpassed 21,000.

More than 100 people were detained across the 10 provinces affected by the quake, the state-run Anadolu News Agency reported on Saturday, as the Turkish Justice Ministry ordered officials in those provinces to set up “Earthquake Crimes Investigation Units.” It also directed them to appoint prosecutors to bring criminal charges against all the “constructors and those responsible” for the collapse of buildings that failed to meet existing codes, which had been put in place after a similar disaster in 1999.

The arrests were the first steps by the Turkish state toward identifying and punishing people who may have contributed to the deaths of their fellow citizens in the quake. Across the earthquake zone, residents expressed outrage at what they contended were corrupt builders who cut corners to fatten their profits and the government’s granting of “amnesties” to builders who put up apartment complexes that failed to meet the new codes.

In the Saraykint neighborhood of Antakya, residents pointed to shoddy workmanship in a newly built luxury building of 14 floors, with some 90 apartments, that had collapsed on itself.

“The concrete is like sand,” said one man who declined to give his name, standing near the building as he watched rescuers work. “It was built too quickly.”

Among those detained on Saturday was Mehmet Ertan Akay, the builder of a collapsed complex in the hard-hit city of Gaziantep, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter and violation of public construction law, a Turkish news agency reported. The Gaziantep prosecutor’s office said it had issued the detention order after inspecting the evidence collected from the rubble of the complex he had built.

Mehmet Yasar Coskun, the constructor of a 12-story building in Hatay Province with 250 apartments that was completely destroyed, was detained on Friday at an Istanbul airport while trying to board a flight to Montenegro. Dozens of people are thought to have died when the building collapsed. Mr. Coskun told prosecutors his building had been properly licensed and audited by local and state authorities, according to the Anadolu News Agency, and his lawyer suggested the main reason he had been detained was mounting public anger.

Two builders of a collapsed 14-story building in Adana, who reportedly fled Turkey immediately after the quake, were detained in Northern Cyprus, according to the Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus administration.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, visiting Diyarbakir Province on Saturday, defended the government’s response to the earthquake, which has been criticized as slow and haphazard. Around the country, residents have waited impatiently for government help to find their loved ones in the rubble, keep their families warm and ensure they get enough to eat, in a country where inflation passed 80 percent last year.

On Saturday, Mr. Erdogan said this quake was “three times bigger and more destructive than the 1999 quake, the greatest disaster in our country’s recent memory.” While acknowledging that official response has been slow, he said that the country was not prepared for an earthquake of this size.

Mr. Erdogan, who faces a tough election battle in May, called for unity, saying: “Unfortunately some political parties, NGOs, still seek to attack immorally, impudently.” He vowed retribution on looters and said that all Turkish universities would switch to online learning so that survivors could live for now in state-run dormitories.

While Turkey has building codes put in place after the 1999 quake, residents said that they were often not applied because contractors can earn more money when they cut corners: mixing the concrete and using cheaper metal bars to gird pillars, among other things.

Mesut Koparal, a car dealer whose mother was killed in the quake, was furious at the state for not doing more to ensure buildings were constructed well.

“The state is responsible,” he said. “If you have a small amount of debt, the state chases you and finds you, but they don’t check the buildings.”

“I’m not an engineer, I’m not a contractor,” he added. “How would I know?”

His neighbor, Mehmet Celik, 38, a middle-school teacher, said the big problem was so-called amnesties for buildings that were not built according to code, which the government occasionally issues to effectively legalize such buildings. It’s good politics, because no one wants a building or apartment they had paid for to be condemned, he said. But then the building is vulnerable when a quake hits.

In the city of Adiyaman, the main thoroughfare felt like a construction site that sprawls out, block after block after block. But instead of putting up buildings, crews of workers, cranes, bulldozers and excavators were digging through the rubble of those that have collapsed.

Residents said rescue crews and aid were initially slow to arrive after Monday’s powerful earthquake, which killed more than 21,000 people in Turkey and nearly 4,000 in neighboring Syria. The crews now pack the main roadway.

Rescue workers, miners and uniformed soldiers stand atop piles of rubble and rest on the grassy median, warming themselves with wood fires that choke the air with smoke, and sipping lentil soup made in volunteer kitchens.

Adiyaman was badly damaged, with a number of buildings on each block along its main street now collapsed. Many others have cracked windows and walls, and none appear to have any inhabitants.

Prepared food, diapers and baby formula were being handed out at various distribution points. In an empty dirt lot, volunteers set up an open-air pharmacy to hear residents’ complaints and look at their medical records before fetching the proper pills or syrups from folding tables behind them.

At a medical tent next door, doctors offered free consultations to anyone who walked in. The most common complaints were wounds from shattered glass or falling bricks, respiratory illnesses aggravated by the cold weather and diarrhea from the lack of potable water for the droves of homeless people, said Dr. Firat Erkmen, the head of a medical association in Sanliurfa that sent a delegation of volunteers.

A million or more people in the affected region are thought to be without shelter in a cold winter, U.N. officials said, as local and foreign aid workers pushed to bring food, clean water and temporary housing to the affected areas, especially in northwest Syria, which has been largely cut off from outside aid because of political obstacles stemming from a 12-year civil war.

The earthquake left widespread destruction across southeastern Turkey and northern Syria, both in the last opposition-held territory in Syria’s northwest and in swaths of government-held territory, particularly Aleppo.

Humanitarian aid has been politicized for a long time in a divided Syria, with President Bashar al-Assad insisting that it be funneled through the central government, while most Western aid agencies want to deliver aid directly to the country’s northwest, which is held by Turkish-backed opposition forces.

Only one border crossing from Turkey into northwest Syria, Bab al-Hawa, has been authorized for aid deliveries by the United Nations Security Council, where Russia, which supports Mr. al-Assad, has refused to allow other crossing points to function. There were reports that the Syrian Red Crescent received permission to send 14 trucks of aid through the crossing to Idlib, accompanied by U.N. officials, but much more aid is needed.

The Syrian death toll is expected to grow considerably in the next few days, as a disorganized rescue effort gets into higher gear.

“Emergency response must not be politicized,” said Geir O. Pedersen, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, speaking after a meeting of a humanitarian task force in Geneva. “Our immediate asks are two: access and resources,” he added.

While aid has been pouring into Turkey, the situation in Syria is more chaotic and dire. Mr. Pedersen is only one of a number of U.N. officials expected to visit the country. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization, traveled on Saturday to Aleppo, and the U.N. aid chief, Martin Griffiths, is in Turkey and hoping to go to Syria, where Mr. al-Assad has been touring areas of devastation and blaming the West for shunning his government.

Mr. Griffiths acknowledged the particular difficulties of getting aid to Syria and said he planned to put more pressure on the Assad government to open up two other crossings. “It’s life and death,” he said, warning that the death toll could double.

One Syrian volunteer, Mohamed al-Shibli, said on Saturday that the Syrian White Helmets rescue group was now recovering only the dead. “Yesterday and today we haven’t found any cases alive,” he said.

Mr. al-Assad’s opponents say he is using the crisis to try to get sanctions lifted, and to argue that most Syrian aid funded by Europe and the United States goes through U.N. agencies and their local partners based in the capital. They say that Syria routinely blocks international aid to opposition-held areas in the north and siphons supplies for the rest of the country.

Mr. al-Assad, in turn, accused the West of playing politics. “The West prioritized politics over the humanitarian situation,” Mr. al-Assad said on Friday while visiting the devastated Aleppo neighborhood of Masharqa. “It’s natural that they politicize the situation, but there is no humanitarianism, neither now nor in the past.”

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department refused to lift sanctions on Syria, saying that humanitarian aid efforts were not impeded by the policy. But the Treasury Department issued a six-month exemption from sanctions for all transactions related to providing disaster relief to Syria.

Rescue operations continued in Turkey, where 67 people had been pulled alive from the rubble in the past 24 hours, Vice President Fuat Oktay told reporters overnight. He said that about 80,000 people were being treated in hospitals, while 1.05 million left homeless by the quakes huddled in temporary shelters.

Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority said on Saturday that nearly 93,000 survivors had been evacuated from the quake zone.

While Turkish officials have encouraged families to evacuate, many have been stymied. The Goclu family had heard about a bus to evacuate people, but when they arrived to take it, it had been canceled, Melek Goclu said. Her husband had booked plane tickets, but they had been canceled, too.

“We just want to leave,” she said, “but we can’t find a way.”

Ben Hubbard and Safak Timur reported from Adiyaman, Turkey; Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon; Raja Abdulrahim from Antakya, Turkey; Gulsin Harman from Istanbul; and Steven Erlanger from Brussels. Farah Mohamed contributed reporting from London.

A correction was made on Feb. 11, 2023

An earlier version of a summary with this article incorrectly implied the capital of Turkey. It is Ankara, not Istanbul.

Source: NYTimes

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