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Minister, opposition mayor face protests during vigil in quake-stricken city

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Grieving Turks who came together for pre-dawn vigils in Hatay in southern Turkey on Tuesday for their loved ones who were killed in two powerful earthquakes that hit the region exactly a year ago have poured out their anger and desperation against a minister and a mayor who were in the area for commemoration ceremonies.

On the first anniversary of the disaster, the participants of the vigils in the early hours of Tuesday held protests against Health Minister Fahrettin Koca and Hatay Mayor Lütfü Savaş,  booing them and chanting slogans against them.

The magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 earthquakes affected 11 provinces in the country’s south and southeast on February 6 2023, killing more than 53,000 people in Turkey and leaving millions homeless.

“Lütfü, resign,” “We don’t want Lütfü Savaş,” some protestors chanted, referring to the city’s mayor, who is again running as a mayoral candidate from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the local elections scheduled for March 31. Savaş, surrounded by bodyguards, had a hard time walking through the crowd while leaving the area amid the calls for his resignation.

The anger against Koca, who had to deliver a short speech to commemorate the earthquake victims amid booing protestors, stems from the widespread perception among Hatay residents that the city, one of the hardest-hit by the earthquakes, was left to its fate following the tragedy because it is ruled by an opposition mayor.

Hatay residents say search and rescue teams were sent to the city too late, causing their loved ones to be trapped under the debris for days and die either due to a lack of timely medical attention or from freezing to death.

Former footballer Gökhan Zan, a Hatay resident who came to public attention begging in tears for search and rescue teams to be sent to Hatay after the tragedy, said angrily that Hatay residents do not want to see any government representative in the area. “You left us to death for three days,” he said.

Savaş and his municipality are criticized for playing a major role in the massive destruction in the city by issuing permits for construction that was not in compliance with the country’s building code or by neglecting the oversight of their construction.

More than 13,800 buildings collapsed in Hatay, while at least 22,000 people were killed there in the earthquakes. The Antakya, Defne and Samandağ districts were nearly wiped off the map.

Hatay’s population was around 1.6 million before the earthquakes. There is no information about the city’s current population, but around 187,000 people live in more than 200 container cities established in the city after the tragedy.

Savaş resisted calls for his resignation following the tragedy.

Despite widespread criticism against the mayor and the public anger, the CHP last month picked Savaş again as the party’s mayoral candidate in Hatay.

The protests staged by Hatay residents during the pre-dawn vigils on Tuesday have led to calls to the CHP to consider withdrawing Savaş’s candidacy in Hatay.

Journalist Alican Uludağ, who commented on a video on X showing the protest against Savaş in Antakya, said the CHP should immediately withdraw Savaş’s candidacy and name another candidate for the city.

The party claims that Savaş was nominated based on the results of the opinion surveys in the city which showed widespread support for him among the locals.

Savaş served as mayor of Hatay’s Antakya district between 2009 and 2014 from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). He resigned when the party failed to nominate him as a mayoral candidate for Hatay in the local elections of 2014 and joined the CHP. He has been serving as mayor of Hatay from the CHP since 2014 and was re-elected in the local elections of 2019.

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