Dozens killed as rural Turkish towns are rocked by powerful earthquake

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An earthquake rocked a rural swath of central Turkey yesterday, destroying scores of buildings and killing at least 44 people, including an elderly couple crushed by falling stones while having breakfast. At least 150 people were injured.

An earthquake rocked a rural swath of central Turkey yesterday, destroying scores of buildings and killing at least 44 people, including an elderly couple crushed by falling stones while having breakfast. At least 150 people were injured.

The epicentre was at Sultandagi, a small town where many people work in the government-controlled poppy industry, some 200km (125 miles) south of the capital, Ankara. "It was very powerful, I could not stand up," said Ramazan Seker, who waited as rescuers hunted in the rubble for his brother. "I was only able to find my way out by touching my hands against the walls."

The earthquake caused 15 buildings and the minarets of four mosques to collapse in Bolvadin, about a three-hour drive from Ankara.

Several brick houses in five nearby towns and villages were also destroyed. A total of 26 people were injured after jumping from windows and balconies in the area.

The couple died when a three-storey building collapsed on to their one-storey house. Huseyin Seker, 75, and his 73-year-old wife, Kezban, were last seen by neighbours sipping tea in their kitchen when the earthquake struck at 9.11am (7.11am in Britain). Workers using shovels and earth-removing machines recovered the couple's bodies.

The earthquake was rated as magnitude 6, far less powerful than two massive earthquakes that killed 18,000 in western Turkey in 1999.

About 150 buildings collapsed throughout this rural area, which is fringed by the Sultan mountains and dotted with dusty plains that are carpeted by red poppies in summer. The industry produces morphine derivatives for use in painkillers. Until the 1970s, the poppies were widely used to produce opium and heroin. In 1971, poppy-growing was halted under pressure from the United States. Cultivation resumed in 1974 under government control.

The poppies are processed in a state factory in Bolvadin, where one person died during the earthquake. No damage was reported to the factory.

The most seriously damaged buildings were shops and state offices, which would have been packed during the week. Abdulkadir Akcan, the Public Works Minister, said: "Because today is Sunday and shops are closed, a huge disaster was avoided." At one hospital, doctors, expecting aftershocks, hurried patients into the garden. Ahmet Mete Isikara, head of Turkey's Istanbul-based Kandilli seismology institute, said on national television: "Please, please stay away from damaged houses."

Families trying to contact relatives jammed telephone services in the province of Afyon.

The quake was felt in the central provinces of Ankara, Burdur, Isparta, Eskisehir, Kocaeli and Sakarya.

Dozens of aftershocks, the strongest with a magnitude of 5.3, rattled the area. Many residents were preparing to spend the night outdoors, although temperatures were forecast to drop to minus 5C (23F). "We've lit a fire, we're going to sleep in the street," said Rukiye Gokyuz, a 60-year-old woman.

The government, accused in the past of reacting too slowly to natural disasters, said it immediately sent 3,000 blankets and 1,000 tents to the region. Troops set up tent cities to house the homeless. Bulent Ecevit, the Prime Minister, and several other cabinet ministers inspected the disaster site.

Schools in the area were closed for the week, and authorities in Sultandagi allowed residents to make free phone calls to relatives outside the area.

Greece, which has tense relations with Turkey, had offered to send rescue workers, Turkey's Foreign Ministry said. Greece sent help during the 1999 earthquakes, improving ties between the nations.

"We express our solidarity toward the troubled people and government of Turkey, who have again been struck hard by another earthquake," said George Papandreou, the Greek Foreign Minister. "We express our deepest condolences to the families of those lost." ( AP)

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