A survivor is carried to an ambulance in Tabanli village, Turkey, after… (Reuters )
ANKARA, TURKEY — As rescuers in eastern Turkey combed through rubble in search of earthquake survivors early Monday, officials said the number of deaths from the 7.2 temblor had reached 217 and could go much higher.
Many buildings were destroyed or damaged. Emergency workers and residents pressed to find hundreds of people believed to be buried under debris in the cities of Van and Ercis, where a student dormitory collapsed.
In Van, some residents using their hands and shovels worked frantically under floodlights or only flashlights after reportedly hearing the voices of people calling from under mounds of broken concrete in pitch darkness and cold.
Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin said at least 100 people were killed in Van and 117 others died in Ercis, an eastern city close to the Iranian border.
"The most important problem now is in the villages close to Van city center because the buildings are made of adobe," said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who reportedly traveled to the disaster area by helicopter. "They are more vulnerable to quakes. I must say that almost all buildings in such villages are destroyed."
The quake struck at 1:41 p.m. Sunday and was centered in the village of Tabanli in Van province, said Turkey's Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute.
U.S. scientists recorded more than 100 aftershocks in eastern Turkey within 10 hours of the quake, including one with a magnitude of 6.
The earthquake also shook buildings in neighboring Armenia and Iran, but no injuries were reported.
In Turkey, thousands of people reportedly fled into the streets running, screaming or trying to reach relatives on cellphones as apartment and office buildings cracked or collapsed.
Erdogan urged people to stay away from damaged buildings and promised assistance to all survivors.
"We won't leave anyone to fend for themselves in the cold of winter," he said.
About 1,275 rescue teams from 38 provinces were being sent to the region, officials said. Troops were also assisting search-and-rescue efforts, they said.
Many buildings also collapsed in the district of Celebibag, near Ercis.
"There are many people under the rubble," Veysel Keser, the mayor of Celebibag, told NTV. "People are in agony, we can hear their screams for help."
Nazmi Gur, a legislator from Van, said his nephew's funeral was cut short because of the quake, and he rushed back to help.
"We managed to rescue a few people but I saw at least five bodies," Gur told the Associated Press. "It was such a powerful temblor. It lasted for such a long time.... Now we have no electricity, there is no heating, everyone is outside in the cold."
Authorities had no information yet on remote villages, but the provincial governor was touring the region by helicopter and the government sent in tents, field kitchens and blankets.
International offers of aid poured in from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, China, Japan, the United States, Azerbaijan, European countries and Israel, whose ties with Ankara have soured since Israeli commandos killed nine Turks during a raid on an aid flotilla bound for the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip in 2010.
Erdogan thanked all the governments that had offered help, but said Turkey could handle the disaster relief without assistance.
Turkey lies in one of the world's most active seismic zones and is crossed by numerous fault lines. In 1999, two earthquakes with a magnitude of more than 7 struck northwestern Turkey, killing about 18,000 people.
More recently, a magnitude 6 quake in March 2010 killed 51 people in eastern Turkey, while in 2003, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake killed 177 people in the southeastern city of Bingol.
Istanbul, the country's largest city with more than 12 million people, lies in the northwest near a major fault line. Experts have warned that overcrowding and shoddy construction in Istanbul could lead to the deaths of tens of thousands if a major temblor struck.
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.