Russian rescuers to fly to Syria and Turkey after huge earthquake

By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russian rescue workers will fly to Syria and Turkey after a huge earthquake killed about 1,700 people and injured thousands more, the Kremlin said on Monday.

President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan to express his condolences over the death and destruction wrought by the magnitude 7.8 quake, the worst to strike Turkey this century.

Putin offered to send Russian rescue teams to both Turkey and Syria.

"Bashar al-Assad gratefully accepted this offer, and in the coming hours rescuers of the Russian emergencies ministry will fly to Syria," the Kremlin said in a statement.

"The Turkish president warmly thanked Vladimir Putin for such a prompt and sincere reaction and said that he was giving instructions to the competent authorities of the country to accept the help of Russian rescuers," it said.

Russia said it had emergency rescue Ilyushin-76 planes on standby to fly to the two countries. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered Russian forces in Syria to help with the rescue effort.

Russia backed Assad in Syria's civil war, launching a military campaign that helped turn the tide of the conflict in his favour even though the West had called for the Syrian leader to go.

Russia has a naval base in Tartus, on the Syrian coast, and operates the Khmeimim air base north of Tartus.

Russia's defence ministry said its military facilities in Syria had not been damaged by the earthquake.


Separately, an official from Russia's state atomic energy company Rosatom said the Akkuyu nuclear power plant it is building in southern Turkey was also not damaged by the quake.

"Nevertheless, we are carrying out extensive diagnostic measures to make sure that construction and installation operations can continue safely," the RIA news agency quoted Rosatom official Anastasia Zoteeva as saying.

Armenia, which was struck by a devastating earthquake in 1988, also expressed its sadness over Monday's earthquake, even though the former Soviet republic which borders Turkey has no diplomatic ties with Ankara due to disputes over history.

Yerevan says 1.5 million Armenians were killed in a genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor to modern Turkey, in 1915. Ankara contests the figures and denies the killings were systematic or constitute a genocide.

"Saddened by the news of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria that resulted in the loss of so many lives," Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said.

"Our deepest condolences to the families of the victims and we wish a speedy recovery to the injured. Armenia is ready to provide assistance."

(Editing by Gareth Jones)