WASHINGTON — The United States on Thursday announced an initial $85 million aid package to help Turkey and Syria recover from the devastating earthquake, while also granting a temporary relief of some Damascus-related sanctions.
The 7.8-magnitude quake struck early Monday near the Turkish-Syrian border, and by Friday morning the death toll in both countries topped 21,000. Search efforts persist but chances of finding survivors are dimming.
The US Agency for International Development said the funding will go to partners on the ground "to deliver urgently needed aid for millions of people", including through food, shelter and emergency health services.
The funding will also support safe drinking water and sanitation to prevent the outbreak of disease, USAID said in a statement.
The announcement comes after Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier Thursday spoke by telephone with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to discuss the NATO ally's needs.
"We are proud to join the global efforts to help Turkey just as Turkey has so often contributed its own humanitarian rescue experts to so many other countries in the past," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters as he described the call.
The Treasury Department later announced a temporary lifting of some Syria-related sanctions, hoping to ensure that aid moves as quick as possible to those affected.
The move "authorizes for 180 days all transactions related to earthquake relief that would be otherwise prohibited by the Syrian Sanctions Regulations," the department said in a statement.
It stated however that US sanctions programs "already contain robust exemptions for humanitarian efforts."
The United States has sent rescue teams to Turkey and has contributed concrete breakers, generators, water purification systems and helicopters, officials said Thursday.
USAID said rescue teams were focused on badly hit Adiyaman -- a city in southeastern Turkey -- seeking survivors with dogs, cameras and listening devices.
Following major damage to roads and bridges, the US military has sent Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters to transfer supplies, it said.
'ALLOW AID IN'
Assistance in Syria is going through local partners as the United States refuses to deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, from whom Washington demands accountability over abuses during the brutal civil war.
"We call on the Assad regime to immediately allow aid in through all border crossings; allow the distribution of aid to all affected areas; and to let humanitarians access all people in Syria who are in need, without exception," Blinken said in a statement Thursday evening.
An aid convoy earlier Thursday reached rebel-held northwestern Syria for the first time since the earthquake, going through the only open border crossing -- Bab al-Hawa on the Turkish side.
Russia, the key international backer of Assad, has wielded its veto power at the UN Security Council to stop other crossings and authorize Bab al-Hawa only six months at a time as it tries to promote the sovereignty of the Damascus government.
As of Friday morning, the death toll from Monday's earthquake topped 21,000 in Turkey and Syria.
© Agence France-Presse