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LONDON (Reuters) - Turkey is much better placed to deal with its latest earthquake since overhauling its emergency operations in the past decade, but international experts questioned on Monday its decision to rebuff many outside offers of help.
The country has plenty of experience in dealing with earthquakes after living through a "seismic storm" over the past century, but that hasn't always translated into prompt relief.
Disaster response has much improved since a 7.6 magnitude quake in the Western city of Izmit killed 17,000 people in 1999.
Nevertheless, experts said the region's rising economic power still lagged the level of organisation seen, for example, in Japan -- raising questions about Ankara's rejection of foreign help after Sunday's 7.2 magnitude quake in southeastern Turkey.
"It would be better to accept all the help you can get," said Matthew Free, immediate past chairman of the Institution of Structural Engineers' earthquake field investigation team, who helped after the Izmit quake. "It's not a good time to be proud ... saving lives is the top priority."
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who flew to Van in southeast Turkey to assess the damage from the Ercis quake, said the country could cope by itself.
He declined offers of help from, among others, the United States, Britain and Germany, as well as neighbouring Israel and Armenia, which both have strained relations with Ankara. Turkey has accepted help only from Iran, Azerbaijan and Bulgaria.
For the people of Turkey's southeast, the earthquake, which has killed at least 279 and probably hundreds more, piles on fresh agony for an area where Kurdish PKK militants killed 24 Turkish soldiers just last week.
Tiziana Rossetto of University College London's Earthquake and People Interaction Centre, who is researching earthquake preparedness in Turkey, said reorganisation at the Turkish Red Crescent (TRC) had significantly improved response rates since 1999.
The TRC has already set up a tent city in Ercis and the speedy action underscores Turkey's ability to get emergency accommodation up and running fast, after impressive preparations for an influx of Syrian refugees earlier this year.
The big question for seismologists poring over Turkey's geological fault lines is when the next major earthquake will hit the country's largest city -- Istanbul.
Three major fault lines criss-cross Turkey but Amy Vaughan, an earthquake expert at the U.S. Geological Survey, said the Ercis quake shed no real light on activity at the other end of the country.
"Most of Turkey is a kind of lozenge that is being squeezed out along these faults," said John Woodhouse, professor of geophysics at the University of Oxford.
"There have been theories that earthquakes have been migrating towards Istanbul, along the North Anatolian fault, but this quake is way off the eastern end of that fault, so I don't think it really has any bearing."
Since the fourth century, Istanbul has been rocked by 15 major earthquakes, with the last one in 1894.
Turkey sits at a point where three vast slabs of the earth's crust -- the Eurasian, Arabic and African plates -- grind together, scoring geological fault lines across the country.
The North Anatolian fault runs along the northern side of Turkey and through the Sea of Marmara, where Istanbul lies, and a scientific team concluded five years ago that Istanbul was likely to suffer a 6.8 to 7.5 magnitude quake within 30 years.
Emergency systems have been upgraded in recent years but experts fear the weak point remains inadequate construction, particularly for residential housing, which was exposed at the weekend in Ercis and Van as buildings crumbled.
"The Turkish engineering community is greatly respected throughout the world. They have some top-class people and they have a perfectly adequate building code. The problem is the enforcing of the building code on the ground," said Roger Musson, a seismologist with the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.
Editing by David Stamp