New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has extended condolences to the people of Turkey after a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck the eastern part of the country yesterday.

The quake has killed at least 217 people and injured 350 in eastern Turkey, Turkey’s interior minister Idrsi Naim Sahin said, with 117 deaths in the Ercis district alone and 100 in Van province.

An earlier toll had given 70 dead including 50 in Ercis, a district of around 100,000 people in the same region as Van.

The situation in Ercis is more grave, said Turish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, adding that many apartment buildings collapsed, raising fears that the toll could increase. 80 multistory buildings had collapsed in Ercis with people trapped inside 40 of them.

Mr Key said New Zealanders knew all too well the “suffering and destruction major earthquakes can cause” and said this country’s sympathies were with those dealing with the Turkish quake’s aftermath.

“New Zealand stands by ready to assist Turkey as it moves to recover from this event, and that offer has been made directly to Turkish authorities by the New Zealand Embassy in Ankara,” he said.

The US Geological Survey initially measured the Turkish quake at magnitude 7.3 but later downgraded it to 7.2.

The quake that struck Van, a large eastern city populated mainly by Kurds, was Turkey’s strongest in years.

Many buildings collapsed in Ercis and Van, officials said.

Earthquake-prone Turkey lies atop several fault lines.

In 1999, two strong quakes in the heavily populated and industrialised regions of northwest Turkey left some 20,000 dead and a powerful earthquake in the town of Caldiran in Van province killed 3840 people in 1976.

Television footage showed panicked residents using shovels and other digging tools trying to rescue people trapped under collapsed buildings in Ercis and Van.

Search and rescue teams were using electrical generator lights to help the search for trapped victims as the night fell.

“An eight-storey apartment collapsed,” a local from Ercis told AFP.

“There are efforts to rescue people but the loss is big. I myself saw three to four dead,” he added.

Most people are expected to spend the night outdoors, with the temperature expected to dip to 3C.

“People are panicked. The telecommunication services have collapsed. We cannot reach anybody,” Bekir Kaya, the mayor of Van, told NTV television.

US President Barack Obama offered his condolences to the victims of the massive quake and said the United States stood read to assist the country’s authorities.

Some 1275 search and rescue teams from 38 Turkish cities as well as 145 ambulances were sent to the quake region, according to media reports.

The military said six battalions were also involved in search and rescue efforts, in a statement posted online.

Six helicopters, including four helicopter ambulances, as well as C-130 military cargo planes were sent to the area carrying tents, food and medicine.

Some 200 inmates fled the prison in Van province, which was damaged in the quake, media reports said. But 50 of the inmates returned to prison later, they added.

The epicentre of the quake, which struck about 10.41am GMT (11.41pm NZST) yesterday, was at Tabanli in Van province, Turkey’s Kandilli institute said.

Two aftershocks had hit the villages of Ilikaynak and Gedikbulak in particular, it added.

The quake was also felt across the border in northwestern Iran, causing some panic in major cities, Iranian media reported.

No deaths or serious damage were reported in Iran.

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