A powerful pre-dawn earthquake buried sleeping villagers in remote eastern Turkey Monday, claiming at least 51 lives and leaving dozens injured, officials said.
Measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, the tremor struck at 4:32 am (0232 GMT), razing mud-brick houses in five mountainous villages in a mainly Kurdish area and killing whole families in their beds.
The epicentre of the shallow quake was near the town of Karakocan in Elazig province, the Kandilli observatory in Istanbul said.
"It started shaking -- first slowly and then violently. I was terrified and began crying. The cupboard fell over and then the television set exploded," said Zeynep Yuksel, a teenager in Okcular, the worst-hit village.
|A man stands among debris in front of a destroyed house in the village of Okcular.|
Civil and military rescue teams rushed to the region but search operations were called off after about eight hours.
"According to the information we have, no one remains under the rubble. The work has been ended," an official from the governor's office told AFP.
Crisis desks in Elazig and Ankara both put the death toll at 51, revising down an earlier figure of 57, and officials said 74 were injured.
The heaviest toll -- 18 dead and some 30 houses destroyed -- was in Okcular, a Kurdish village of some 900 people nestled among snow-covered hills at a height of about 1,800 metres (5,900 feet) and accessible only by one narrow road.
"I rushed out after the tremor, looked to one side and saw nothing, then looked to the other side -- again nothing. Everything had collapsed," said a middle-aged woman who did not give her name.
"I pulled out the two kids from the rubble with bare hands. They were both dead," said the woman, who lost a sister-in-law and two nephews in the quake.
As night fell and the temperature dropped close to freezing, survivors huddled round stoves in the entrance of tents distributed by the Red Crescent.
Wrapped in blankets and cuddling babies, women wailed around a bonfire as rescue workers distributed food and other relief supplies.
Survivors scrambled to recover any valuables from the debris, often terrified anew by a flurry of aftershocks jolting the area, with the most powerful measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale.
"I don't dare go back to my house, which was damaged, for fear of another tremor," said Nimet Cicek, a survivor in her 60s.
Graves were quickly dug and by the end of Monday afternoon all of the dead were buried following brief prayers at a village mosque that was missing part of its minaret after the tremor.
Officials lamented that shoddy construction exacerbated the disaster as in many other quakes that have hit Turkey.
Provincial governor Muammer Erol stressed that buildings made of cement or stone had only "minimal damage, such as cracks".
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had instructed the public building company to immediately launch reconstruction in the area.
"Mud-brick construction is undoubtedly a local tradition there. But unfortunately, it has proved to have a heavy price," he said in Ankara.
In Brussels European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso offered condolences, saying he would monitor the situation "so that assistance can be mobilised as necessary" for the EU-hopeful country.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy voiced "great emotion" on hearing about the quake, according to a letter addressed to his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul.
"In the name of the French people and my own name, I address my sincere condolences to you and thank you for sharing my deep sympathy to the wounded and the victims' families," he said.
Major earthquakes are frequent in Turkey, which is crossed by several active fault-lines.
Two powerful tremors in the heavily populated and industrialised northwest claimed about 20,000 lives in August and November 1999.