Israel rescue team aids Turkey quake victims

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Israel sent 200 soldiers and medical personnel to Turkey on Tuesday night to dig through rubble for survivors and help the wounded following the massive earthquake.

Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz instructed the Israel Defense Force's Home Front Command to prepare the special rescue teams as soon as news of Tuesday morning's disaster arrived.

The devastating 7.4-magnitude quake killed at least 3,500 people, injured 16,000 and left countless others missing. Its epicenter was 55 miles southeast of Istanbul.

The Israel Defense Force sent the team before word surfaced that 10 Israeli tourists vacationing in the Turkish hills were missing.

None of Turkey's 23,000 Jews — most of whom live in Istanbul — appear to have been killed or injured in the disaster, Leon Levy, president of the New York-based American Sephardi Federation, said Wednesday. None of the country's Jewish institutions sustained damage, he added.

"Most of the damage was not where Jews normally live," said Levy, who is of Turkish descent and in frequent contact with the Jewish community there.

At least 19 countries had sent more than 2,300 rescue workers to Turkey by Wednesday night. Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem expressed his gratitude.

"We thank those who share our pain," Cem said Wednesday.

Israel's team was the largest foreign force to arrive on the scene Tuesday.

Turkey-Israel relations have been growing stronger and stronger over the past several years.

Israeli President Ezer Weizman telephoned his Turkish counterpart Suleyman Demirel to offer his support.

"I told him that if he needs anything else, just ask," Weizman said.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said his country wants to aid its neighbor in any way possible.

"Turkey is a friendly state and the moment we heard of this tragic event we did what could be done. We have the experience and, of course, the sensitivities, particularly when we are talking about a friendly nation," he said.

Israeli soldiers rushed throughout Tuesday to pack the planes with equipment before setting off Tuesday night. Three air force C-130s and a cargo jet were filled with members of the rescue team, communications equipment, canine units, and about 30 doctors and medics.

Equipment included heavy machinery to help sift through the rubble and specially designed equipment, including heavy-duty balloons and pneumatic jacks and cutters capable of lifting and cutting through tons of iron, cement and debris.