Earthquake in eastern Turkey kills at least 51

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* Minister says 51 people killed, revised down from earlier

* Quake centred in thinly-populated area of eastern Turkey

(Updates death toll, adds prime minister's statement)

By Ferit Demir

KOVANCILAR, Turkey, March 8 (Reuters) - A strong earthquake killed at least 51 villagers in a remote part of eastern Turkey before dawn on Monday, officials said, and aftershocks continued for hours while rescuers searched for trapped survivors.

People were sleeping in their mud-brick houses when the 6.0-magnitude quake struck at 4:32 am local time (0232 GMT) in a sparsely-populated area of high steppe in Eastern Anatolia.

"There was a lot of fear and panic among the people. It lasted about a minute," Nursel Sengezer, a Dogan News Agency correspondent in Elazig province, told broadcaster CNN Turk.

"We felt it very strongly and everyone tried to get out onto the street."

Turkey is criss-crossed with faultlines and frequently suffers earthquakes. A large earthquake measuring 7.4 killed about 18,000 people in August 1999.

On Monday, families huddled in the open around fires lit to keep them warm, as the ground shook with more than 40 aftershocks, the largest of which had a magnitude of 5.5.

The quake toppled the minarets of three mosques in stricken villages in the Basyurt region of Elazig, according to provincial governor Muammer Erol.

Television images from the area showed women crying and embracing amid the ruins of their one-storey houses, and cars and ambulances ferrying injured to a hospital in the nearby town of Kovancilar.

"I ask my citizens in the region not to go into damaged houses because earthquakes and aftershocks are continuing," Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told a meeting of his AK Party.


Erdogan lamented the loss of life due to the vulnerability of the traditional mud-brick village homes, and pledged to rebuild houses using stronger materials.

Paramilitary and police directed operations on the outskirts of affected villages, where crowds had gathered, and a Red Crescent team had reached the area and set up a crisis centre.

Health Minister Recep Akdag, who had travelled to Elazig along with Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek, put the death toll at 51, revising the figure from 57 given earlier by officials.

There were no reports of any damage to the strategic hydroelectric Keban Dam, further west in Elazig. The Keban Dam was the first and most upstream dam built by Turkey on the Euphrates River as part of the Southeast Anatolia Project. (Additional reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Ralph Boulton)
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