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British volunteers begin earthquake rescue as other crews speak of delays

Hundreds of buildings across Turkey and Syria collapsed during the earthquake (@mehmetyetim63/PA)
Hundreds of buildings across Turkey and Syria collapsed during the earthquake (@mehmetyetim63/PA)

British volunteers have begun rescuing people from the rubble as the death toll from the Turkish and Syrian earthquake passed 16,000 – while smaller search crews have spoken of a “frustrating” delay in flying out to help.

The Prime Minister said the Government will match £5 million in funds raised through an appeal to help the rescue and relief effort in the aftermath of the earthquake.

More than 70 members of the UK International Search and Rescue Team (UK-ISAR) have arrived in Turkey to assist with the search operation since the 7.8 magnitude quake hit on Monday.

The ISAR volunteers tweeted to say they were working “24 hours a day” in their recovery efforts, and said they had recently managed to rescue two women, aged 60 and 90, from the rubble.

As well as the ISAR team, other smaller crews have now been given permission to join the search operation.

Martin Phillips, who volunteers with Wiltshire-based Serve On, said he was part of a 13-strong team flying out to Turkey from London Stansted airport on Thursday to assist with the rescue effort.

Speaking from the airport, Mr Phillips told the PA news agency: “We normally go for a week to 10 days.

“Obviously, there is a short window of survivability when our skills are of most use – after that time, we get out and make way for those teams bringing in humanitarian aid.”

The first 7.8-magnitude quake hit the Turkish city of Gaziantep in the early hours of Monday, reducing thousands of homes and buildings across the south of the country and northern Syria to rubble as people slept.

A series of aftershocks has left tens of thousands injured and survivors are feared trapped under thousands of collapsed buildings.

Earthquake hits the Middle East
Teams from the UK have started to travel out to Turkey to help with the relief effort (PA)

On Tuesday, Foreign Secretary James Cleverley said the department’s Crisis Response Hub is working to support at least 35 Britons caught up in the disaster – including three who were missing.

British humanitarian charities, co-ordinated by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), are now set to launch an appeal to raise funds for people affected by the earthquakes.

Confirming the Government would match £5 million of funds, Rishi Sunak told broadcasters in St Austell, Cornwall: “Obviously, what’s happening in Turkey is just an awful, awful tragedy and the scale of human loss is something that is hard to comprehend.

“I spoke to President Erdogan of Turkey just the other day to express our solidarity and sympathy and make sure that we provide all the support we can as a country.

“People should know that we sent, very quickly, 77 specialist search-and-rescue teams who arrived a couple of days ago, (and) started work straight away.

“They’re already making a difference on the ground, and of course, all ministers are in touch with their counterparts to continue providing more assistance.

“And the Government has said it will match £5 million, in fact, of everyone’s contribution to the DEC appeal. So, please, if you give generously know the Government will match that and we can get that extra support to the people on the ground who need it.”

Relief efforts have been hampered by damaged infrastructure, freezing winter temperatures and limited medical facilities.

Serve On is part of the European Association of Civil Protection Voluntary Teams, and Mr Phillips said fellow crews from across Europe had told them it was “chaos”.

He said: “They’re feeding back to us a picture of what it’s like – it sounds like the usual chaos.

“You can’t have a disaster on this scale without everything falling over and being in a mess and it takes time to unravel that.”

Mr Phillips said Serve On would be what the UN would describe as a “light team” – adding that it was “frustrating” they were not permitted to join the rescue effort earlier.

He said: “It is frustrating. It’s nobody’s fault as such – the Turkish authorities wanted medium and heavy teams in first.

“So we’ve we’ve had to wait a little while.

“Normally, the light teams get in first and lay the pathway for the bigger teams coming in.

“That’s not how it’s worked this time, but that’s for others to decide whether that was a way forward or whether it was better for light teams to come in.

“We just put in our applications, told people what we can do and we’ve been pushing to get in – now we can.”

The Syrian volunteer organisation, White Helmets, said “time is running out” as “hundreds of families” remained trapped under the rubble.

In a tweet, they said: “We are at a critical point. Time is running out, hundreds of families are still stuck under the rubble.

“Every second means saving a life.”