Turkey Accused of Hampering Quake Relief

ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkish voluntary relief workers said on Tuesday the government was hampering relief operations for the quake-hit northwest by trying to control the activities of civil aid groups.

The government and state authorities have been attacked for being slow to respond to the August 17 earthquake–which killed at least 14,000 people.

Civilian relief operations led the way in reaching and providing for survivors of the earthquake–sparking a public row over the roles of the state and private groups.

The government has now ordered that all aid be distributed through military and local government channels instead of the civil groups acting independently in the quake zone.

"The state does not accept non-governmental organizations as interlocutors," said Umit Kivanc–of the main civil society coordination center set up after the quake.

"If we could work in a coordinated fashion–it would be much more effective," he added.

An official for Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said the move was an attempt to bring logistical order to the aid operation.

"This decision is not aimed at preventing civil aid efforts. The aim is to organize them better," said the official who asked not to be named.

All aid being flown in to the country or collected domestically is taken under army supervision to military depots–from where it is distributed by region according to need.

But civilian aid groups–who with their international counterparts–have drummed up large amounts of tents–medical supplies and even water purification systems–say they would like aid distribution to be more transparent.

Meanwhile–Islamist aid groups–a traditional target for the staunchly secularist establishment–say the government has taken the step of freezing their bank accounts–even those which were not quake-related.

Osman Atalay–head of Islamic Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Aid group–said he saw official policies toward aid groups as an attempt to exclude them from the quake zone.

"I do not want to mix politics and religion with these humanitarian efforts–but I find what the government has done to us is ugly," he said.

He said he resented the government order to hand over distribution of aid since his organization–with first-hand experience of disaster relief in Bosnia and Kosovo–was functioning efficiently.

Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek–from the main opposition Islam-based Virtue Party–said the government order had decreased the amount of aid flowing to the region.

"Sending relief aid to the region should be encouraged. It does not matter from whom it comes," he said.

Virtue is linked to a number of Islamic organizations that Turkey’s secularist authorities regard with suspicion as threats to the officially secular constitution. Turkish Islamic groups provide quake relief aid.

Turkish Islamic volunteers on Wednesday shrugged off what they said was official pressure to halt their earthquake relief efforts.

The volunteers from the Islam-based National Youth Foundation (MGV) arrived in the small town of Halidere shortly after the August 17 earthquake killed at least 14,000 people in northwest Turkey and forced hundreds of thousands onto the streets.

The MGV’s blue and white banner sits above a large depot serving as a kitchen providing hot daily meals to those living in the tent cities in the hills around Halidere on the shore of the Sea of Marmara.

Young men in MGV T-shirts heave sacks of vegetables from a small truck.

"One cannot make people work like that if there is not a desire to please God," said MGV volunteer Ahmet Yilmaz–pointing at the toiling volunteers.

Turkey’s secularist authorities suspect Islamic-based organizations such as the MGV of trying to subvert Turkey’s strictly secular constitution.

The organization has been investigated for links to now-banned Islamic political parties and possible breaches of strict laws against mixing religion and politics.

Government officials from the crisis management center have ordered civil relief groups to hand over distribution to local state-appointed governors.

The bank accounts of 14 civil groups have been frozen–apparently to prevent any mismanagement of financial aid to the quake zone.

Some see the official measures as a bid to cover the government’s inefficiency in tackling the disaster.

"The government is jealous of what we are doing here. Otherwise why would they try to stop us?" said the MGV’s Necati Ucar.

The foundation was among a number of Islamist groups whose bank accounts were suspended. Local people in Halidere were angry at what they called the lack of official attention.

"Where was the state while we were trying to take out our families from under the rubble?" asked 63-year-old Hacet Tugrul–who lost her daughter in the quake.

"They are the only ones who help us–God bless them," she said of the MGV.

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