Rescue workers in eastern Turkey are racing to find survivors trapped in the wreckage of buildings and mud-brick homes after a 7.2-magnitude quake that killed nearly 300 people.

But Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said he expected search-and-rescue efforts after Sunday's quake to end as early as Tuesday.

Bodies were still being pulled from the rubble late Monday. Dozens were placed in body bags or covered by blankets, laid in rows so people could search for their missing relatives, The Associated Press reported.

Cranes and other heavy equipment lifted slabs of concrete, allowing residents to dig for the missing with shovels. In Ercis, considered the worst hit city, teams were forced to use generator-powered floodlights to conduct the search into the night, as the quake had cut running water and electricity, according to AP.

More than a hundred buildings in two cities and mud-brick homes in nearby villages pancaked or partially collapsed in the earthquake.

The death toll in eastern Turkey's earthquake has climbed to at least 279, as rescue teams dig through dozens of buildings that collapsed on Sunday. 

Turkey's Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin said more than a thousand people were injured. Sahin said 80 multi-storey buildings had collapsed in the city of Ercis with people trapped inside 40 of them

Many residents slept outside their homes, making campfires to ward off the cold, as aid organizations rushed to erect tents for the homeless.

Rescuers are racing against time, frequent aftershocks and temperatures approaching the freezing mark.

Sahin said he expected the death toll in Ercis to rise, but not as substantially as initially feared.

"As the rescue work progresses, there is a possibility of the Ercis death toll increasing, but the figures are not likely to be scary numbers," he said.

Ozgur Monkol, a search and rescue co-ordinator in Ercis, told CBC News  that 11 people have been pulled from the rubble by the 161 rescue personnel on the scene.

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A rescue worker carrying a girl runs to an ambulance after his team found her alive in a collapsed building in Ercis, near the eastern Turkish city of Van on Monday. ((Reuters))

Ercis, an eastern city of 75,000 close to the Iranian border, is in one of Turkey's most earthquake-prone zones. The bustling, larger city of Van, about 90 kilometres south of Ercis, also sustained substantial damage, and highways in the area caved in.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said "close to all" mud-brick homes in surrounding villages had collapsed.

State-run TRT television reported inmates escaped from a prison in the region soon after the quake hit, though a prison official later said that some of the inmates returned.

More than 100 aftershocks

More than 100 aftershocks were reported late Sunday, including a 6.0 magnitude temblor that struck six kilometres southeast of Van. Aftershocks typically continue for several days or weeks after an earthquake of this strength.

A student dormitory was among the buildings that collapsed, Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said. At least 10 students died in the collapse, freelance reporter Dorian Jones told CBC News Network from Istanbul.

"Turkey is bracing itself for more bad news," he said.

Jones said there are fears that many villages in the areas have been divested.

"In some villages, all of the houses have been levelled. [In] one village alone, six children died," he said.

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Yunus, a 13-year-old earthquake survivor with the hand of a victim on his shoulder, waits to be rescued from under a collapsed building by rescue workers in Ercis, Turkey, on Monday. (Umit Bektas/Reuteres)

The earthquake struck eastern Van province, close to the Iranian border, at 1:41 p.m. local time Sunday, Turkey's National Earthquake Monitoring Centre said.

The quake was also felt in Iran and Armenia.

The centre reported the quake's magnitude as 6.6, while the United States Geological Survey said it measured 7.2, making it the most powerful quake to hit Turkey's eastern region in at least a decade. A 7.2 quake is considered major, with only about 15 that powerful occurring every year.

Survivor Yalcin Akay was dug from a collapsed six-storey building with a leg injury after he called a police emergency line on his phone and described his location, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported. Three other people, including two children, were also rescued from the same building in the city of Ercis some 20 hours after the quake struck, officials said.

A fifth survivor, Tugba Altinkaynak, a 21-year-old woman, was rescued from the rubble after being trapped for roughly 27 hours.

Many residents spent the night outdoors and lit campfires, while the Red Crescent began setting up tents in a stadium. Others sought shelter with relatives in nearby villages.

'We were all screaming'

"We stayed outdoors all night, I could not sleep at all, my children, especially the little one, was terrified," said Serpil Bilici of her six-year-old daughter, Rabia. "I grabbed her and rushed out when the quake hit, we were all screaming."

Shifting plates

 

The area of eastern Turkey where Sunday's earthquake struck is one of the most seismically active areas of the world, says CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe, who is also a seismologist.

"Turkey is actually on its own plate, called the Anatolian plate, and so it's bumping and grinding with plates to the north, the Eurasian plate, [and]

it's sliding and bumping with the Arabian plate to the south," she said.

She said Sunday's 7.2 magnitude quake is considered a major event.

"We only see about 15 earthquakes of this size every year, and many of those happen in unpopulated areas. This is definitely a major earthquake with aftershocks continuing to happen."

Bilici, a mother of five children aged between six and 16, said her house had only cracks, but her family was too afraid to go back inside. She lost one relative in the quake.

A woman who lost her parents sat on the ground metres away from another crumpled building, sobbing as relatives tried to comfort her.

While daytime highs will reach 13 C over the next couple of days with only a few showers, overnight temperatures are expected to plunge to the freezing mark on Monday night.

"That's going to be a challenge for us," said Alper Kucuk, the executive officer for international relations at the Turkish Red Crescent.

"We are trying our best, but we don't want to lose our hope because we are still saving the lives of people in the region."

Around 1,275 rescue teams from 38 provinces were being sent to the region, officials said, and troops were also assisting search and rescue efforts.

Late Sunday, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the Turkish government turned down Israel's offer of aid. Once close allies, relations between Israel and Turkey were damaged by a 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla in which nine Turks were killed.

Barak said the offer of aid remains open.

Turkish officials said they've declined similar offers from a dozen other countries as well.

Quake was relatively shallow

The earthquake's epicentre had a depth of 20 kilometres, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, a relatively shallow quake, which usually causes more damage.

Telephone and other services were knocked out, and search and rescue teams from other parts of Turkey were being forced to land at an airport a 90-minute drive away on damaged roads.

"There are so many dead," Zulfikar Arapoglu, the mayor of Ercis, told NTV television. "Several buildings have collapsed, there is too much destruction. We need urgent aid, we need medics."

Earthquakes are frequent in Turkey, which is crossed by fault lines. In 1999, about 18,000 people were killed by two powerful earthquakes that struck northwestern Turkey. Authorities blamed shoddy construction for many of the deaths.

Many buildings in Van province, with a population of about 350,000, are also old and poorly built, unlike those in Istanbul and other more affluent areas, where the government has insisted on better engineering and buildings able to withstand quakes.

According to the Ercis municipal website, town meetings earlier this year focused on earthquake safety in the town, located in one of Turkey's most quake-prone zones. Officials promised to crack down on shoddy, unlicensed construction.

"We may only need earthquake-safe buildings for only 30 to 40 seconds every 30 to 40 years, but we need those buildings right now," Arapoglu is quoted as saying. "You can't guess when there will be an earthquake."   

With files from The Associated Press and the CBC's Johanna Wagstaffe