OKCULAR, Turkey : A powerful earthquake buried sleeping villagers in eastern Turkey early Monday, claiming at least 51 lives and leaving dozens injured, officials said.
The shallow quake, which measured 6.0 on the Richter scale, had an epicentre near the town of Karakocan in Elazig province, the Kandilli observatory in Istanbul said.
Rescuers struggled to dig survivors from the rubble after the tremor struck at 4:32 am (0232 GMT), razing mud-brick houses in five remote mountainous villages in the mainly Kurdish area and killing whole families in their beds.
"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.
The search-and-rescue operations were called off after about eight hours and preparations quickly began to bury the victims.
"According to the information we have, no one remains under the rubble. The work has been ended," an official from a crisis desk at the governor's office, told AFP.
Visiting the region, Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek put the death toll at 57, but crisis desks in Elazig and Ankara both said later that the official toll stood at 51, offering no explanation for the confusion.
At least four of the dead were children.
The tremor left 74 people injured, officials in Elazig said, adding that 34 of them remained hospitalised on Monday afternoon, including one person in serious condition.
The heaviest toll - 18 dead and some 30 houses destroyed - was in Okcular, a Kurdish settlement of some 900 people, nestled in 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-age 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.
Wrapped in blankets and cuddling babies, women wailed around a bonfire as Red Crescent workers erected tents and distributed food and other emergency supplies.
Villagers scrambled to recover any valuables from the debris as a flurry of aftershocks jolted the area, with the most powerful measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale.
In nearby Yukari Demirci, 15 people perished, among them a family of nine. The remaining victims were in Gocmezler, Kayalik and Yukari Kanatli.
The quake also killed many livestock, the main livelihood for locals.
Officials lamented that shoddy construction exacerbated the disaster as in many other quakes that have hit Turkey in the past.
"Villages consisting mainly of mud-brick houses have been damaged, but we have minimal damage, such as cracks, in buildings made of cement or stone," provincial governor Muammer Erol said.
In Ankara, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had instructed the public building company to immediately launch a reconstruction project in the area.
"Mud-brick construction is undoubtedly a local tradition. But unfortunately, it has proved to have a heavy price," he said.
The tremor was felt in the neighbouring provinces of Bitlis, Diyarbakir and Tunceli, sending residents out onto the streets in panic.
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. - AFP/sc/ms