Turkey and Syria earthquake death toll passes 21,000 as first aid convoy enters north-west Syria

<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

The first convoy of humanitarian assistance for victims of Monday’s earthquake has crossed into north-west Syria, as the death toll in Turkey and Syria climbed to more than 21,000 amid fading hopes of finding survivors under rubble in freezing weather.

Six trucks passed through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey carrying tents and hygiene products, as Turkey said it was working to open two more border crossings with Syria to allow in more humanitarian aid.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned that without quick help, tens of thousands of people living in the open could be under threat from the harsh conditions, and with the death toll likely to rise significantly higher.

Dr Wassel Ajerk, a general surgeon at Idlib city hospital and project manager for the Syrian Expatriate Medical Association, said the situation in rebel-held north-west Syria was “miserable”. He said it faced the same situation as Turkey but without any government support.

Robert Holden, the WHO’s incident response manager, said in Geneva that many people were surviving “out in the open in worsening and horrific conditions”, with water, fuel and electricity supplies severely disrupted.

Earthquake search and rescue efforts continue in Idlib, Syria on Thursday evening.
Earthquake search and rescue efforts continue in Idlib, Syria on Thursday evening. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty

“We are in real danger of seeing a secondary disaster which may cause harm to more people than the initial disaster if we don’t move with the same pace and intensity as we are doing on the search and rescue side,” he said. “People need the basic elements to survive the next period.”

In Turkey, a survivor in the city of Antakya called for the government to evacuate people from devastated areas. “Especially in this cold, it is not possible to live here,” said Ahmet Tokgoz. “If people haven’t died from being stuck under the rubble, they’ll die from the cold.”

Just one border crossing, in Turkey’s southern Hatay province, is open for transporting life-saving aid to rebel-held regions of Syria under the authorisation of the UN security council. Humanitarian aid for rebel-held areas usually arrives through Turkey via a cross-border mechanism created in 2014 by a security council resolution.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said late on Wednesday: “There is damage to some roads on the Syrian side of the border. There has been some difficulty for our and international aid to get through because of the destruction. For this reason, we are working on the opening of two more posts.”

Related: Turkey-Syria earthquake: toddler rescued from rubble after three days as death toll passes 17,000 – latest news

“Because there is a humanitarian situation, we are working on also opening posts where the regime is in control,” he added, referring to the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad.

As rescuers continued to pull survivors from beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings on Thursday, hopes were rapidly fading of finding many more people alive more than three days after the earthquake and a series of aftershocks struck the two countries.

Emergency crews working through the night in Antakya pulled a young girl from the ruins of a building and rescued her father two hours later, the IHA news agency reported.

As they prepared to load the man into an ambulance, rescue crews told him that his daughter was alive and they were taking him to the same field hospital for treatment. “I love you all,” he whispered faintly to the rescue team.

In Diyarbakır, east of Antakya, rescuers freed a woman from a collapsed building in the early hours but found the three people next to her in the rubble dead, the DHA news agency reported.

A rescued toddler in Antakya, Turkey.
A rescued toddler in Antakya, Turkey. Photograph: Yonhap/EPA

Tens of thousands of people are thought to have lost their homes. In Antakya, former residents of a collapsed building huddled around an outdoor fire overnight into Thursday, wrapping blankets tightly around themselves to try to stay warm.

Serap Arslan, 45, said many people remained under the rubble of the nearby building, including her mother and brother. She said machinery had only started to move some of the heavy concrete on Wednesday. “We tried to clear the debris on our own, but unfortunately our efforts have been insufficient,” she said.

Selen Ekimen wiped tears from her face with gloved hands as she said her parents and brother were still buried. “There’s been no sound from them for days,” she said. “Nothing.”

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was scheduled to travel to the quake-hit provinces of Gaziantep, Osmaniye and Kilis on Thursday amid ongoing criticism that the government’s response has been too slow.

Experts said the survival window for people trapped under the rubble or otherwise unable to obtain basic necessities was closing rapidly. At the same time, they said it was too soon to abandon hope.

“The first 72 hours are considered to be critical,” said Steven Godby, a natural hazards expert at Nottingham Trent University in England. “The survival ratio on average within 24 hours is 74%, after 72 hours it is 22% and by the fifth day it is 6%.”

Related: ‘It seems too late’: hope fading in Turkey’s search for earthquake survivors

According to the Turkish disaster management agency, more than 110,000 rescue personnel were now taking part in the effort and more than 5,500 vehicles including tractors, cranes, bulldozers and excavators had been shipped. The task is monumental, however, with thousands of buildings toppled.

Erdoğan, who faces a tough battle for re-election in May, acknowledged problems with the emergency response but said the winter weather had been a factor. The earthquake also destroyed the runway at Hatay’s airport, further disrupting the response.

“It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster,” Erdoğan said as he visited the hard-hit province of Hatay on Wednesday. “We will not leave any of our citizens uncared for.” He also hit back at critics, saying “dishonourable people” were spreading “lies and slander” about the government’s actions.

The disaster comes at a sensitive time for Erdoğan, who faces an economic downturn and high inflation. Perceptions that his government mismanaged the crisis could hurt his standing. He said the government would give 10,000 Turkish lira (£435/$530) to affected families.

Agencies contributed to this article.