Rescue and relief operations are in full swing in Turkey and Syria with the death toll from Monday's devastating earthquake crossing the 5,000 mark in the two countries and raising the ominous specter of a humanitarian catastrophe in the region.
Authorities in Turkey on Tuesday morning confirmed the deaths of at least 3,419 people and injuries to more than 14,000 people so far after a series of high-intensity earthquakes struck the country's southeastern region bordering Syria in the wee hours of Monday.
At least 1,602 people are also confirmed dead in neighboring Syria, where crippling Western sanctions have compounded the misery of people.
Disaster management authorities in the two countries fear the death toll from Monday’s predawn magnitude 7.8 earthquake, which was followed by magnitude 7.6 earthquake hours later and a series of aftershocks, will mount further as rescuers try to find survivors in the rubble.
The US Geological Survey said the initial earthquake was centered about 33km (20 miles) from Gaziantep, a major Turkish city and provincial capital.
Rescuers are working to pull out survivors from the rubble of more than 5,600 buildings destroyed in several cities across the two countries due to the quake, which was felt as far away as Cyprus and Lebanon, according to reports.
Freezing weather in the worst-affected areas hampered rescue and search operations through the night, reports cited officials as saying on Tuesday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his remarks on Monday described the earthquake as the country's "largest disaster" since 1939 when a major quake struck the eastern province of Erzincan.
"Everyone is putting their heart and soul into efforts although the winter season, cold weather and the earthquake happening during the night makes things more difficult," he said, noting that 45 countries had offered to help the search and rescue efforts.
In Syria, hospitals and clinics continue to be flooded with injured people, even as the focus of the international community remains on Turkey.
The Syrian health ministry has reported extensive damage across the provinces of Aleppo, Latakia, Hama and Tartus.
The Syrian government on Monday urged the international community to come to its aid following the devastating earthquake, even as local volunteer groups joined hands to carry out rescue and relief operations.
Syria’s UN envoy Bassam Sabbagh told reporters he delivered a letter to UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres from the country’s foreign minister requesting help, adding that he “assured us that the UN will do all it’s possible in helping Syria in this very difficult situation”.
The United Nations on Tuesday said at least 224 buildings in northwestern Syria have been destroyed and at least 325 have been damaged, including aid warehouses in the enclave home to millions of displaced people.
Guterres had earlier expressed deep sadness over the deaths, urging the international community to help the thousands of families hit by the disaster. He also noted that UN teams are on the ground providing assistance.
The death toll could rise to more than 20,000 people, warned Catherine Smallwood, the World Health Organization’s emergency officer for Europe.
“There’s continued potential of further collapses to happen so we do often see in the order of eightfold increases on the initial numbers,” she was quoted as saying by AFP.
“We always see the same thing with earthquakes, unfortunately, which is that the initial reports of the numbers of people who have died or who have been injured will increase quite significantly in the week that follows.”
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has called for increased funding for humanitarian aid in Syria, saying medical care in the north-west was “strained beyond capacity, even before this tragedy.”
Carsten Hansen, director for the Middle East at the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a statement that the disaster "will worsen the suffering of Syrians already struggling with a severe humanitarian crisis.”
Meanwhile, the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) called for the immediate lifting of sanctions imposed on Syria, saying it was hampering the efforts to provide the Syrian people with basic needs to respond to the devastating earthquake.
"We urge the immediate lifting of sanctions on Syria and allowing access to all materials, so sanctions may not turn into a crime against humanity," it said in a statement on Monday.
Bahrain's king calls Syria's Assad after 12 years
Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday evening to offer his condolences over deaths in the earthquake.
He also expressed his country's solidarity with the Syrian government and people and voiced his readiness to send aid to help with the country's relief efforts.
It was the first phone conversation between the two leaders since the outbreak of foreign-sponsored militancy in Syria back in 2011.
Bahrain was among the Persian Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, which broke off diplomatic ties with Syria and supported terrorists fighting against Assad.
The tiny Persian Gulf country decided to shut down its embassy in Damascus and pull out all diplomats in March 2012. But it re-opened the embassy in December 2018.
Three years later, the kingdom appointed its first ambassador to the war-ravaged country as many Arab countries took steps toward normalization with the Syrian government after it scored major victories against the foreign-backed militants.
Also on Monday, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and leader of the Hamas resistance movement Ismail Haniyeh sent separate messages to Erdogan and Assad, offering condolences after the earthquake, and expressing their solidarity with the two countries.
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