ISTANBUL: Emergency workers in Turkey and Syria made a series of extraordinary rescues Friday, pulling about half a dozen people out of collapsed buildings on either side of the border, even as hopes of finding more survivors of a pair of major earthquakes dimmed.
The people - including a married couple in Turkey's Iskenderun, a newborn baby in Hatay, and a mother and her two adult children in the Syrian city of Jableh - were among the few who were able to hold on for more than four days after the temblors struck, in frigid temperatures and under the wreckage of their own homes.
In Turkey, the scenes of survivors being carried out on stretchers provided rare moments of optimism amid the ever-expanding tragedy. On Saturday, the death toll in both countries surpassed 24,000, the majority of who perished in Turkey, with more than 80,000 injured and countless others still trapped or missing beneath the rubble.
In opposition-held Syria, the Syrian Civil Defense Forces, also known as the White Helmets, announced an end to search-and-rescue efforts Friday. The group's members - operating with far fewer resources than rescuers in Turkey - had been digging with their hands and basic construction tools across 40 towns and villages. Their leader, Raed al-Saleh, blamed the international community for failing to mobilize and provide equipment he said could have saved more Syrian lives.
The United Nations "has not provided anything" to help rescue efforts in northwest Syria, he said at a news conference, calling for an investigation into why foreign aid had arrived first in government-held areas.
Even before the quakes struck on Monday, 4.1 million people in northwest Syria required humanitarian assistance. And Sivanka Dhanapala, the U.N. refugee agency's representative in Syria, said Friday that as many as 5.3 million people across the country may have been left homeless by the disaster.
"We needed help here, we asked for help here," said Mahmoud Hafar, the mayor of the town of Jindires, on Turkey's border. "It never came."
UN, WHO aid
On Friday, fourteen aid trucks carrying UN assistance entered northwest Syria, the largest such delivery in the aftermath of the temblors. An initial UN aid convoy entered the area Thursday after UN officials said damage to roads had hampered cross-border operations. Among the items were tents, blankets, heaters and solar lamps, the UN humanitarian affairs agency said.
The World Health Organization also sent emergency health supplies to both Turkey and Syria to treat injuries, as well as illnesses such as pneumonia, which the organization expects to rise as people are exposed to cold temperatures.
"These life-saving health supplies are critical for treating the wounded and providing urgent care to all those affected by this tragedy in both countries," WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. "We're in a race against time to save lives."
Planes carrying supplies from Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Libya arrived at government-controlled airports in Syria on Friday, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited government-held Aleppo with his wife, Asma, in his first public visit to the disaster zone since the quakes.
Images shared by the government showed them meeting with patients at a hospital in the war-ravaged city, where rescue operations are ongoing. According to state media, 1,347 people were killed in government-controlled regions of the country.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, visited devastated regions in his country's south, where he described the quakes as the "disaster of the century." The president and his party have faced mounting criticism of the government's response - as well as the apparent flouting of earthquake codes that caused thousands of buildings to crumple when the tremors hit.
"Thousands of buildings have collapsed, laying bare the slipshod construction that has marked Turkey's building boom and making a mockery of the 'earthquake proofing' and regulations that were meant to guide new Turkish buildings," Howard Eissenstat, a nonresident scholar with the Turkey Program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, wrote on Friday.
Turkish authorities on Friday detained Mehmet Yasar Coskun, the developer of a luxury apartment complex in the southern city of Antakya that collapsed during the earthquakes, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported. The 12-story apartment complex, called the Renaissance Residence, included 250 condominiums, according to local media reports.
Aerial photos that circulated on social media showed a catastrophic collapse, with large sections of the complex knocked flat to the ground, even as other adjacent apartment blocks remained standing. Hundreds of people were feared trapped in the rubble. Coskun was trying to travel from Istanbul to Montenegro on Friday evening, and was ordered detained by an Istanbul prosecutor, Anadolu said.
US aid for Turkey
At least eight American citizens were killed in the earthquakes, John Kirby, strategic communications coordinator for the National Security Council, said Friday at a briefing.
The U.S. military also began deploying forces to assist with earthquake relief in Turkey, with a Navy headquarters overseeing the mission and a Marine Corps general arriving on the ground to assess the scope of support that may be needed.
U.S. military helicopters, including heavy-lift helicopters and Black Hawks, had already been used to bring relief workers from Incirlik Air Base to affected provinces. But more helicopters were scheduled to arrive at the base "in the coming days," Jeffry L. Flake, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, said in a brief interview Friday.
Two U.S. urban search and rescue teams have been working over the last 48 hours "day and night" to help with victim recovery in the ruined Turkish city of Adiyaman, Flake said. The teams, based out of Fairfax, Va., and Los Angeles, "are making good progress," he said.
A U.S. field hospital has also been set up in Hatay, another hard-hit province, in coordination with Samaritan's Purse, a Christian disaster-relief organization.
U.S. financial aid was also allocated to relief efforts in Syria, in both government-controlled and rebel-held parts of the country, through "partner organizations," Flake said. It was unclear exactly how much of the aid package, totaling $85 million, would be allocated to Syria, which has been isolated because of its civil war as well as Western sanctions.
The Treasury Department on Thursday issued a general license authorising transactions related to earthquake relief in Syria for six months. The Syrian government also said Friday it would allow aid to reach opposition areas with the help of the United Nations, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.