An estimated 500 to 1,000 people were killed in a powerful earthquake that struck southeast Turkey’s Van province on Sunday, director of the Kandilli seismological institute in Istanbul told reporters.
“Five hundred to 1,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the quake,” Mustafa Erdik said.
Turkey’s strongest earthquake in years struck Van, a large eastern city populated mainly by Kurds.
Earlier reports had not mentioned casualties, but many were feared trapped in collapsed buildings and officials warned they were struggling to assess the extent of the damage.
“There is serious human and material loss,” said a brief statement from the national disaster body, which is based in the prime minister’s office.
Officials said around 50 buildings had collapsed, including a dormitory.
At least 50 people were taken to hospital in Van and nearly a thousand people in Ercis, a district of around 100,000 people in the same region, where the most serious damage occured, according to media reports.
“Many buildings alongside a major street in Ercis were collapsed,” said an AFP photographer at the quake scene.
“There is electricity cut throughout district. People are using lanterns,” he said.
The Kandilli Observatory said the earthquake struck at 10:41 GMT and was 5 km (3 miles) deep. The U.S. Geological Survey earlier reported that the magnitude was 7.6.
Aftershocks continued after the initial quake, whose epicenter was at the village of Tabanli, north of Van city, the agency said.
In Hakkari, a town around 100 km (60 miles) south of the city of Van in southeastern Turkey, a building could be felt swaying for around 10 seconds during the quake.
There was no immediate sign of any casualties or damage in Hakkari, around two and half hours drive through the mountains from Van, around 20 km from the epicenter.
Major geological fault-lines cross Turkey and small earthquakes are a near daily occurrence. Two large quakes in 1999 killed more than 20,000 people in northwest Turkey.
Two people were killed and 79 injured in May when an earthquake shook Simav in northwest Turkey.
Israel’s offer to help declined
In a goodwill gesture, Israel had offered its assistance its former close ally, but Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Ankara has declined this offer.
“Right now (their answer) is negative but if they see they need more aid and don’t have it, or if they rethink it, we have made the offer and remain prepared (to help),” he said.
Earlier, Barak said Israel is preparing to offer Turkey “any aid they might need.”
The Israeli embassy in Ankara also offered the Turkish government humanitarian aid, the foreign ministry said in a statement.
An embassy spokesman said Israeli President Shimon Peres has called his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul, adding: “Peres expressed his sympathy regarding the recent earthquake and offered any help needed.”
Ties between Israel and Turkey, once strong allies, have been strained since May 2010, when Israeli naval commandos stormed a flotilla trying to sail to Gaza in defiance of a blockade, killing nine Turks.
The crisis deepened last month, with Turkey expelling the Israeli ambassador and axing military ties and defence trade.
But the two countries have maintained a tradition of offering each other assistance in times of need, despite the frayed relations.
In December, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dispatched firefighting planes to Israel to help tame a forest fire which killed 44 people, and sent aid to victims of the blaze.
In 1999, relations between the two countries were cemented in part by the aid which Israel sent to assist in the aftermath of two massive earthquakes in northwest Turkey that killed some 20,000 people.