ISTANBUL: A powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Turkey and Syria on Monday, killing at least 1,400 people, levelling buildings while people were still in their sleep, and sending tremors that were felt as far away as the island of Cyprus.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said 912 people were killed, 5,383 injured, and 2,818 buildings had collapsed in Turkey.
Erdogan said he could not predict how much the death toll would rise as search and rescue efforts continued.
"Everyone is putting their heart and soul into efforts although winter season, cold weather and the earthquake happening during the night makes things more difficult," he said.
Television images showed shocked people in Turkey standing in the snow in their pyjamas, watching rescuers dig through the debris of damaged homes.
The quake struck at 04.17am local time (0117 GMT) at a depth of about 17.9 kilometres, the US agency said, with a 6.7-magnitude aftershock striking 15 minutes later.
Turkey's AFAD emergencies service centre put the first quake's magnitude at 7.4.
The earthquake was one of the most powerful to hit the region in at least a century.
"I convey my best wishes to all our citizens who were affected by the earthquake," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tweeted.
"We hope that we will get through this disaster together as soon as possible and with the least damage."
The earthquake levelled dozens of buildings across major cities of southern Turkey as well as neighbouring Syria, a country gripped by more than a decade of violence that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions of people.
Images on Turkish television and social media showed rescuers digging through the rubble of levelled buildings in the city of Kahramanmaras and neighbouring Gaziantep.
A fire lit up the night sky in one image from Kahramanmaras, although its origin remained unclear.
NTV television said buildings also crumbled in the cities of Adiyaman, Malatya and Diyarbakir.
CNN Turk television said the quake was also felt across parts of central Turkey and the capital Ankara.
Naci Gorur, an earthquake expert with Turkey's Academy of Sciences, urged local officials to immediately check the region's dams for cracks to avert potentially catastrophic floodings.
Turkey is in one of the world's most active earthquake zones
The Turkish region of Duzce suffered a 7.4-magnitude earthquake in 1999 -- the worst to hit Turkey in decades.
That quake killed more than 17,000 people, including about 1,000 in Istanbul.
Experts have long warned a large quake could devastate Istanbul, which has allowed widespread building without safety precautions.
A magnitude-6.8 quake hit Elazig in January 2020, killing more than 40 people.
And in October that year, a magnitude-7.0 quake hit Turkey's Aegean coast, killing 114 people and wounding more than 1,000.
The 7.8-magnitude earthquake levelled buildings across several Turkish cities and in neighbouring Syria
- 'Biggest earthquake' -
At least 592 people were killed in Syria on Monday as buildings collapsed, state media and a medical source said.
AFP correspondents in northern Syria said terrified residents ran out of their homes after the earthquake hit before dawn near the Turkish city of Gaziantep, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Syrian border.
The quake killed at least 371 people and left at least another 1,089 injured in government-controlled parts of Syria, including the cities of Aleppo, Hama, Latakia and Tartus, state television said.
In rebel-held parts of the northwest of the country, at least 221 people were killed and more than 419 were injured, rescue workers said.
"The toll may increase as many families are still trapped," the White Helmets rescue group, which operates in rebel-controlled areas of the war-torn country, said on Twitter.
"Our teams are on the ground searching for survivors & removing the dead from the rubble," it added.
Rescuers rushed to probe for survivors under the rubble of collapsed buildings in the pouring winter rain.
In Aleppo alone, 24 people died and 100 were injured when 20 buildings collapsed in the province, the official news agency SANA had said, quoting an official.
Even before the tragedy, buildings in Aleppo, Syria's pre-war commercial hub, often collapsed because of the dilapidated infrastructure after more than a decade of war and little oversight to ensure safety of new construction projects, some built illegally.
SANA said the earthquake was felt from Latakia on the coast in the west to Damascus.
"This earthquake is the strongest since the National Earthquake Centre was founded in 1995," Raed Ahmed, who heads the centre, told SANA.
Near the border town of Azaz, an AFP correspondent saw rescuers pull survivors as well as five bodies from the rubble of a three-storey building that had collapsed.
Deaths were also reported in northern Syrian areas controlled by pro-Turkish factions.
"We have been working on rescuing survivors and recovering the dead from under the rubble" in the regions of Azaz and Al-Bab, Omar Alwan, the medical response coordinator for the area, told AFP.
Dozens of rescuers and residents had toiled in the darkness, using flashlights to look for survivors in the rubble.
In Azmarin on the Turkish border, at least 10 buildings had collapsed, an AFP correspondent in the town reported.Syrian state television reported that a building near Latakia, on the west coast of Syria, had collapsed.
Pro-government media said several buildings had partially collapsed in Hama, central Syria, with civil defence and firefighters working to pull survivors out of the rubble.
Raed Ahmed, who heads Syria's National Earthquake Centre, told pro-government radio that this was "historically, the biggest earthquake recorded in the history of the centre".