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Australian authorities are “urgently” trying to help families track down relatives who were in Turkey and neighbouring nations when the devastating earthquakes struck, as the death toll passes 5000.

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman said there were “a small number” of Australians in the affected areas and it was looking for help from local authorities “including rescue teams”.

“Our missions in Ankara, Istanbul, and Beirut are monitoring the situation closely,” a DFAT spokesperson said.

Earthquake survivors wait for news of their loved ones, believed to be trapped under collapsed building  in Iskenderun, Turkey.
Earthquake survivors wait for news of their loved ones, believed to be trapped under collapsed building in Iskenderun, Turkey. (Getty)
Rescuers are racing to find survivors in the rubble of thousands of buildings brought down by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake and multiple aftershocks that struck eastern Turkey and neighbouring Syria, with the discovery of more bodies raising the death toll to more than 5000.

Countries around the world dispatched teams to assist in the rescue efforts and Turkey’s disaster management agency said more than 24,400 emergency personnel were now on the ground.

But with such a wide swathe of territory hit by Monday’s earthquake and nearly 6000 buildings confirmed to have collapsed in Turkey alone, their efforts were spread thin.

Attempts to reach survivors were also impeded by temperatures below freezing and close to 200 aftershocks, which made the search through unstable structures perilous.

Nurgul Atay told The Associated Press she could hear her mother’s voice beneath the rubble of a collapsed building in the city of Antakya, the capital of Hatay province, but that her and others’ efforts to get into the ruins had been futile without any rescue crews and heavy equipment to help.

“If only we could lift the concrete slab we’d be able to reach her,” she said.

“My mother is 70 years old, she won’t be able to withstand this for long.”

Across Hatay province, just south-west of the earthquake’s epicentre, officials said as many as 1500 buildings were destroyed and many people reported relatives being trapped under the rubble with no aid or rescue teams arriving.

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit near Gaziantep, Turkey, in the early hours of Monday.
A 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit near Gaziantep, Turkey, in the early hours of Monday, killing thousands. (Getty)

In areas where teams worked, occasional cheers broke out through the night as survivors were brought out of the rubble.

The quake, which was centred in Turkey’s south-eastern province of Kahramanmaras, sent residents of Damascus and Beirut rushing into the street and was felt as far away as Cairo.

Sebastien Gay, the head of mission in Syria for Doctors Without Borders, said health facilities in northern Syria were overwhelmed with medical personnel working around “around the clock to respond to the huge numbers of wounded”.

In Turkey’s Hatay province, thousands of people sheltered in sports centres or fair halls, while others spent the night outside, huddled in blankets around fires.

Turkey has large numbers of troops in the border region with Syria and has tasked the military to aid in the rescue efforts, including setting up tents for the homeless and a field hospital in Hatay province.

Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said a humanitarian aid brigade based in Ankara and eight military search and rescue teams had also been deployed.

A navy ship docked on Tuesday at the province’s port of Iskenderun, where a hospital collapsed, to transport survivors in need of medical care to the nearby city of Mersin.

Thick, black smoke rose from another area of the port, where firefighters have not yet been able to douse a fire that broke out among shipping containers that were toppled by the earthquake.

In the Turkish city of Gaziantep, a provincial capital about 33 kilometres from the epicentre, people took refuge in shopping malls, stadiums, mosques and community centres.

People try to rescue their loved ones, believed to be trapped under collapsed building in Iskenderun, Turkey.
People try and stay warm amid the devastation in Iskenderun, Turkey. (Getty)

Turkey’s Vice President, Fuat Oktay, said the total number of deaths in Turkey had passed 3400, with some 21,000 people injured.

The death toll in government-held areas of Syria climbed over 800 people, with some 1400 injured, according to the Health Ministry.

In the country’s rebel-held north-west, the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defence, or White Helmets, the paramedic group leading rescue operations, said at least 790 were killed and more than 2200 injured.

Authorities fear the death toll will keep climbing as the rescuers look for survivors among tangles of metal and concrete spread across the region beset by Syria’s 12-year civil war and refugee crisis.

Smoke billows from the Iskenderun Port as rescue workers work at the scene of a collapsed building.
Smoke billows from the Iskenderun Port as rescue workers work at the scene of a collapsed building. (Getty)

The quake piled more misery on a region that has seen tremendous suffering over the past decade.

On the Syrian side, the affected area is divided between government-controlled territory and the country’s last opposition-held enclave, which is surrounded by Russian-backed government forces.

Turkey is home to millions of refugees from the Syrian civil war.

In the rebel-held enclave, hundreds of families remained trapped in rubble, the White Helmets said in a statement.

The area is packed with some 4 million people displaced from other parts of the country by the war.

Many live in buildings that were already damaged by military bombardments.

Strained medical centres quickly filled with injured people, rescue workers said. Some facilities had to be emptied, including a maternity hospital, according to the SAMS medical organization.

People walk past collapsed buildings in Iskenderun, Turkey.
People walk past collapsed buildings in Iskenderun, Turkey. (Getty)

More than 7,800 people were rescued across 10 provinces, according to Orhan Tatar, an official with Turkey’s disaster management authority.

Some 18,000 were killed in similarly powerful earthquakes that hit northwest Turkey in 1999.

The US Geological Survey measured Monday’s quake at 7.8, with a depth of 18 kilometres.

Hours later, another quake, likely triggered by the first, struck more than 100 kilometres away with 7.5 magnitude.

The second jolt caused a multi-storey apartment building in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa to topple onto the street in a cloud of dust as bystanders screamed, according to video of the scene.

Thousands of buildings were reported collapsed in a wide area extending from Syria’s cities of Aleppo and Hama to Turkey’s Diyarbakir, more than 330 kilometres to the north-east.

Before and after photos show true extent of Turkey, Syria quakes

Australians in need of emergency consular assistance should contact the Australian Government 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre on 1300 555 135 in Australia or +61 2 6261 3305 outside Australia.

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