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Turks Lash Out at the Scene of Quake

Frustration grows as rescue efforts drag on. Security forces fire warning shots.

May 03, 2003|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

BINGOL, Turkey — Residents demanding earthquake relief clashed with police and soldiers here Friday, as rescuers found a boy alive in the rubble of a school dormitory where dozens of students died and 34 were missing. Hundreds of angry men marched on the local governor's office to demand his resignation and more government help with food and shelter. "We want justice. Down with the police," they shouted.

Some in the crowd attacked police vehicles and threw rocks. Security forces fired warning shots into the air and used water cannons. Scores of demonstrators were injured, two seriously, and many others were detained.

"If they kill us, we will kill them," said Cafer Aktas, one of hundreds of protesters who pressed against a cordon of blue-bereted soldiers. "If they want a rebellion, they'll get a rebellion."

The largely Kurdish city of 250,000 was still reeling from Thursday morning's earthquake, which registered a magnitude 6.4 on the Richter scale. There is deep distrust between security forces and the Kurdish population of eastern Turkey, after a 15-year Kurdish insurgency left tens of thousands dead.

"They opened fire on us just because we were seeking our rights. We wanted tents, we wanted bread and all we got were these," said university student Halil Oncel, holding a few spent cartridges.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said the clashes were "acts of serious provocation and exploitation." He defended the police decision to fire into the air but announced that Bingol's police chief had been dismissed.

Officials said the death toll had reached 115. The most heart-wrenching scenes have played out at the site of a collapsed dormitory for schoolchildren, where 47 pupils and a teacher have been found dead. Officials said 34 were still missing Friday afternoon, and 117 had been rescued.

The children, ages 7 to 16, were mostly sons of poor Kurdish farmers.

One boy, Enef Gunce, was rescued Friday morning after spending more than 30 hours under the debris.

The boarding school was built in 1999, and for many it represented hope for a better future.

"My son always said, 'I don't want to stay uneducated like you, Dad. I want a different life,' " said Nihat Bezekci, whose 11-year-old son Ahmet was still trapped in the building. "If I had been able, I wish I had sent him to a better school, not here."

The prayer leader at Bingol's main mosque declared in his sermon, broadcast through loudspeakers, that Thursday's earthquake was "the will of Allah." But few seemed willing to listen to his pleas for calm.

Scores of grieving families stood outside the collapsed remains of the dormitory.

Many wept, while others shouted in anger as rescue workers using electric drills and picks continued to probe.

Suddenly, Mustafa Baysal, the Turkish colonel leading the rescue operation, grabbed a megaphone and ordered the crowd to remain silent.

"I do not want you to move. I do not want you to speak," he said. "You must shut up if you want your loved ones to be heard and found."

Silence prevailed as the colonel then turned his megaphone toward the rubble and asked any remaining trapped victims to indicate whether they could hear him. There was no response.

The colonel turned to the rescue workers and said: "We will continue our work as if there are still survivors. We will stay here until every last child is found."

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