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Tragedy cuts short Turkey trip for Cypriot students

Rescuers worked through the night to reach the students at the collapsed hotel in Adiyaman
— Adıyaman (Turkey) (AFP)

Two dozen children from northern Cyprus and some of their parents were on a school trip to join a volleyball tournament in Turkey when a massive earthquake hit their hotel.

The only thing that remains of it now is a flagpole.

Located on the main boulevard of Adiyaman in Turkey's devastated southeast, the hotel was completely flattened. Dozens of other buildings on both sides of the long road have suffered the same fate.

The death toll from the quake that struck Turkey and parts of Syria on Monday has passed 17,500 and been rising by the thousands every day, leaving both countries in a state of shock, grief and profound national trauma.

But the sheer agony wrought by the disaster is hard to fully grasp without looking at the faces of rescuers shouting the Cypriot children's names into the Adiyaman hotel ruins, hoping against hope that someone will respond.

"I have never seen such a thing, such destruction," said Ilhami Bilgen, whose brother Hasan was on the volleyball team.

Bilgen looked at the frightening pile of concrete slabs and heavy bricks hiding his brother.

They were far too heavy to be lifted by hand. And still, he refused to believe that his brother was dead.

"There's a hollow over there. The children may have crawled into it," Bilgen said.

"We still haven't given up hope."

- Huddled around fires -

The 24 students, aged 11 to 14, were staying at the hotel along with 10 parents, four teachers and a trainer, officials told AFP -- 39 Turkish Cypriots in all.

Nazim Cavusoglu, Turkish Cypriot education minister, said one teacher and three parents were rescued when the quake first struck.

Rescuers spent the night calling out the names of 24 children buried under the rubble in Adiyaman

The bodies of two teachers were pulled out of the rubble late Wednesday.

"Thirt-three people are still trapped," the minister told AFP. "The students were on a tour to join a school volleyball tournament."

Athletes from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a breakaway region of the Mediterranean island recognised only by Ankara, are excluded from international tournaments.

The region's government has declared a national mobilisation, hiring a private plane so they can join the search-and-rescue effort for the children.

Their 200-member delegation spent the night huddling around an open fire outside the hotel to stay warm in the winter cold.

Similar fires have been burning at night across the affected region, which covers 13.5 million people in Turkey alone.

- Looking for bodies -

"We've been here since Monday, with families. We are here with our volunteers. We will wait until this debris is removed, until we get our children out of here," the education minister said.

"I saw suitcases filled with gifts -- Turkish delights -- that were scattered around the rubble," another official from the Turkish Cypriot health ministry said, declining to give her name.

"We don't expect to find any more survivors, but we cannot find the bodies either," she said.

The hospital of the Turkish city where the Cypriot children disappeared is overflowing with victims

Remains of the children's tour bus peeked out of the rubble where the parking lot once stood.

The president of the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, whose relations with the rebel government are extremely strained, sent a message of support.

"We reiterate our readiness to contribute and offer our assistance to the humanitarian, rescue and recovery efforts currently taking place," Anastasiades tweeted.

"Our hearts and thoughts are with the families and friends of" the missing students, said the United Nations mission in Cyprus.

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