ELAZIG, Turkey - A powerful earthquake struck eastern Turkey on Friday, killing at least 18 people and collapsing buildings in affected towns near the centre of the tremor, which was strong enough to be felt in several neighbouring countries.
The magnitude 6.8 quake shook Elazig province, about 550 km (340 miles) east of the capital Ankara, and was followed by dozens of aftershocks.
Thirteen people were killed in Elazig and five more in the neighbouring province of Malatya, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said after rushing to the region with other ministers to oversee the rescue operation.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said emergency workers were searching for 30 people under the rubble, and more than 500 people were injured.
State broadcaster TRT showed footage of police and emergency workers searching a partly collapsed building in Elazig. Windows were smashed and balconies had crashed to the ground.
At another collapsed building, teams worked with their hands to remove bricks and plaster from the ruins. Elsewhere emergency workers used drills and mechanical diggers to clear the debris, while injured people were carried on stretchers to ambulances.
Soylu described the earthquake as a "Level 3" incident according to the country's emergency response plan, meaning that it called for a national response but did not require international help.
He said Turkey, which straddles seismic faultlines and is prone to earthquakes, had learnt lessons from previous disasters which helped it address Friday's incident. Drones were deployed in search operations and communication between provinces.
Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD)warned residents not to return to damaged buildings because of the danger of further aftershocks. It said beds, blankets and tents were being sent to the area, where the overnight temperature was below 0 degrees Celsius.
"Our houses collapsed ... we cannot go inside them," said a 32-year-old man from the town of Sivrice, epicentre of the quake which struck shortly before 9 p.m. (1800 GMT).
"In our village some people lost their lives. I hope God will help us," said the man, who gave only his first name, Sinasi. "Our animals died. Our families gathered around the fire to spend the night, covered with blankets," Sinasi said as he and a relative tried to warm themselves by a small fire.
State media in Syria and Iran both reported the earthquake was felt in those countries. Local media in Lebanon said the cities of Beirut and Tripoli also felt the quake.
Turkey has a history of powerful earthquakes. More than 17,000 people were killed in August 1999 when a 7.6 magnitude quake struck the western city of Izmit, 90 km (55 miles) southeast of Istanbul. About 500,000 people were made homeless.
In 2011 an earthquake struck the eastern city of Van and the town of Ercis, some 100 km (60 miles) to the north, killing at least 523 people.
(Reporting by Umit Ozdal in Elazig; Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun, Dominic Evans, Tuvan Gumrukcu, Omer Berberoglu, Mert Ozkan in Turkey and Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Gareth Jones, Matthew Lewis and Daniel Wallis) ((Kanishka.Singh@thomsonreuters.com; +91 80 6749 0021;))