Doctors Without Borders gains access to quake zone in Syria

Antakya (Reuters) – Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said a convoy of 14 of its trucks had entered northwestern Syria on Sunday to assist in earthquake rescue operations, as concerns grow over lack of access to the war-ravaged area.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has been pressuring authorities in that region of Syria to stop blocking access as it seeks to help hundreds of thousands of people in the wake of the devastating Feb. 6 quake that hit the region.

Speaking to Reuters on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, WFP Director David Beasley said the Syrian and Turkish governments had been cooperating very well, but that its operations were being hampered in northwestern Syria.

The agency last week said it was running out of stocks there and called for more border crossings to be opened from Turkey.

In Syria, already shattered by more than a decade of civil war, the bulk of fatalities have been in the northwest. The area is controlled by insurgents at war with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad which has complicated efforts to get aid to people.

Meanwhile, rescue efforts in Turkey were winding down on Sunday, with many praying only for bodies to mourn.

“Would you pray to find a dead body? We do … to deliver the body to the family,” said bulldozer operator Akin Bozkurt as his machine clawed at the rubble of a destroyed building in the town of Kahramanmaras.

“You recover a body from under tonnes of rubble. Families are waiting with hope,” Bozkurt said. “They want to have a burial ceremony. They want a grave.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Turkey on Sunday for an official visit and discussions on how Washington can further assist Ankara as it grapples with the aftermath of a devastating tragedy.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Turkey’s southeast and neighbouring Syria has killed more than 46,000 people and left at least a million people homeless, with the economic cost of the disaster expected to run into billions of dollars.

The head of Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), Yunus Sezer, said the search and rescue efforts would largely end on Sunday night.

The toll is expected to climb, with some 345,000 apartments in Turkey known to have been destroyed and many people still missing.

Neither Turkey nor Syria have said how many people are still unaccounted for.

In one of the last efforts to pull people out of the rubble 12 days after the earthquake, emergency teams on Saturday night began clearing debris with their hands at one site in Antakya.

Search dogs and thermal cameras had detected signs of life from two people, rescuers said. But just after midnight, eight hours into the operation, the teams called off the rescue.

“No one is alive,” said Mujdat Erdogan, a member of AFAD, his face and uniform covered in dust. “I don’t think we can rescue people anymore.”

The World Health Organization estimates that some 26 million people across both Turkey and Syria need humanitarian aid.