More than 1,800 people were killed in Turkey and neighbouring Syria after a major earthquake of 7.8-magnitude hit close to the Turkish city of Gaziantep early on Monday, AFP reported.

Two more major earthquakes followed the initial one, causing widespread destruction.

The second quake, measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale, struck the town of Ekinozu in southeast Turkey a few hours later, threatening to overwhelm rescue efforts, according to the Associated Press.

The first quake struck at 4.17 am local time and the epicentre has been located at 17.9 kilometres below the ground surface, about 33 kilometres away from Gaziantep. Tremors were felt in the neighbouring countries of Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus.

The toll from the first earthquake is expected to rise as rescue teams are racing to find survivors trapped under the debris of damaged buildings in both the two countries. At least 45 countries have promised assistance and aid to Turkey.

At least 783 persons died in parts of Syria controlled by the government and rebel forces.

Raed Ahmed, the head of Syria’s National Earthquake Centre, termed it “the biggest earthquake recorded in the history of the centre”.

Turkish authorities said that at least 20 aftershocks were reported, with the strongest measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale.

Visuals shared on social media showed several buildings collapsing and people running towards the streets in fear in Turkey and Syria. Hulusi Sahin, the governor of Turkey’s Malatya, said that at least 130 buildings tumbled down in his province alone.

“Authorities there have retrieved three bodies and around a hundred people have been hospitalised,” Sahin said, according to the Associated Press.

Two men walk past a heavily damaged building following an earthquake in the town of Zardana in northwestern Syrian. Credit: Mohammed Al-Rifai/AFP

In Syrian regions bordering Turkey, the tremors hit places densely populated by nearly 40 lakh citizens who have fled the country’s civil war-hit areas. These areas have inadequate healthcare facilities, according to AP.

The Syrian Civil Defence has declared an emergency, according to Al Jazeera. The country’s Opposition group, known as White Helmets, has also urged the international community to “support the rescue of civilians in Syria and to put pressure on the Assad regime and its Russian ally to ensure that there is no bombing in the affected areas”.

Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said search and rescue teams were immediately dispatched to the areas affected by the earthquake.

People search through rubble following an earthquake in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Credits: Reuters/Sertac Kayar

“We hope that we will get through this disaster together as soon as possible and with the least damage,” Erdogan said.

World leaders, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, offered assistance to those affected by the earthquake.

“Anguished by the loss of lives and damage of property due to the Earthquake in Turkey. Condolences to the bereaved families,” Modi said in a tweet. “May the injured recover soon. India stands in solidarity with the people of Turkey.”

United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that President Joe Biden has directed federal government partners to assess response options to Turkey and Syria.

“The United States is profoundly concerned by the reports of today’s destructive earthquake in Turkiye and Syria,” Sullivan said. “We stand ready to provide any and all needed assistance.”