Turkey widens probe into building collapses as quake toll exceeds 50,000
By Ece Toksabay and Daren Butler
ANTAKYA/ISTANBUL, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkey has arrested 184 people suspected of responsibility for the collapse of buildings in this month's earthquakes and investigations are widening, a minister said on Saturday, as anger simmers over what many see as corrupt building practices.
Overnight, the death toll from the earthquakes, the most powerful of which struck at the dead of night on Feb. 6, rose to 44,128 in Turkey. That took the overall number of deaths in Turkey and neighbouring Syria to more than 50,000.
More than 160,000 buildings containing 520,000 apartments collapsed or were severely damaged in Turkey by the disaster, the worst in the country's modern history.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said that more than 600 people had been investigated in connection with collapsed buildings, speaking during a news conference in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, which was among 10 provinces hit by the disaster.
Those formally arrested and remanded in custody include 79 construction contractors, 74 people who bear legal responsibility for buildings, 13 property owners and 18 people who had made alterations to buildings, he said.
Many Turks have expressed outrage at what they see as corrupt building practices and flawed urban developments.
President Tayyip Erdogan, who faces the biggest political challenge of his two-decade rule in elections scheduled to be held by June, has promised accountability.
In the province of Gaziantep, the mayor of the Nurdagi district - who is from Erdogan's ruling AK Party - was among those arrested as part of the investigations into collapsed buildings, state broadcaster TRT Haber and other media reported.
'BREAKING MY HEART'
Nearly three weeks since the disaster, there is no final death toll in Turkey and officials have not said how many bodies may still be trapped under the rubble.
A firefighter helping to clear the rubble in the hard-hit city of Antakya said body parts were being found on a daily basis.
"It's very difficult. You cannot tell a man to continue working if he's lifting out a person's arm," said the firefighter, who declined to be identified.
Nearly two million people left homeless by the disaster are being housed in tents, container homes and other facilities in the region and in other parts of the country, Turkey's disaster management authority said.
More than 335,000 tents have been erected in the quake zone and container home settlements are being established at 130 locations, while nearly 530,000 people have been evacuated from affected areas, it added.
But near Antakya, Omran Alswed, a Syrian, and his family are still living in makeshift shelters.
"Our houses are heavily damaged so we have taken shelter here, in a garden in our neighbourhood," said Alswed.
"The biggest issue is tents. It has been 19 days and we are yet to receive a single tent. We also applied to move into a tent camp but they said the ones nearby are full," he said.
Turkey's only remaining ethnic Armenian village, Vakifli, was badly hit by the quake, with 30 of its 40 stone houses heavily damaged.
"Vakifli is all we have, the only Armenian village in Turkey. It is our home. Seeing it like this is breaking my heart," said Masis, a 67-year-old retired jeweller, who moved back to his hometown after spending 17 years in Istanbul.
Turkey and Armenia are still at odds over the 1.5 million people Armenia says were killed in 1915 by the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor to modern Turkey. Armenia says this constitutes genocide.
Turkey accepts that many Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War One, but contests the figures and denies it was systematic.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Helen Popper)