Thousands are known to have died in Turkey's calamitous earthquake last week, but precisely how many thousands was suddenly the subject of a baffling debate here today among government officials and others trying to establish the toll.

After the official body count soared late Tuesday to about 18,000, authorities today announced that the reports were greatly exaggerated. The toll was then revised to 12,514--about the same number as had been cited earlier this week. Late tonight, it crept up to 12,594.

The confusion reinforced a view shared by most in Turkey that the government has bumbled its way through one of the worst natural disasters in Turkish history. Although there appears to be no immediate threat to the coalition government's grip on power, opposition politicians wasted no time in suggesting authorities were intentionally underestimating the death toll.

In Ankara, the Turkish capital, officials blamed the confusion on a local counting error, or perhaps a mistake in entering the figures into a computer in the province of Kocaeli, where the city of Izmit, the quake's epicenter, is located. Local officials in Kocaeli blamed the regional health department, Reuters reported; the regional health department denied any error.

But elsewhere in the quake zone, there also was conflicting information about how many bodies may still lie buried in the rubble of thousands of flattened medium-rise apartment buildings.

In the sprawling, badly damaged city of Sakarya, also known as Adapazari, officials said no more than 10 bodies likely remain entombed in the debris. The city's current death toll is 2,608, and will not grow significantly, according to Celal Dincer, Sakarya's vice governor.

However, in the one of the other worst-hit cities, Golcuk, Mayor Ismail Baris said another 1,000 or 2,000 bodies may yet be found in the ruins. There have already been 2,670 confirmed deaths in Golcuk, southeast of Istanbul.

And in the resort city of Yalova, south of Istanbul across the Sea of Marmara, officials said they expected more bodies to be found but would not say how many. About 2,300 quake-related deaths have been confirmed there.

In both Golcuk and Yalova, where hundreds of buildings have either completely collapsed or are badly damaged and uninhabitable, officials said most bodies have been recovered and that the death toll is slowing.

The final tally is unlikely to be known for another week or two. But based on those assessments from local officials, it seems unlikely the death toll will reach the early estimates of 35,000 to 45,000 that officials at the United Nations attributed to Turkish officials. Equally inexplicable are other reports, also attributed to the United Nations, that Turkey had requested 45,000 body bags from international donors.

As criticism of the government's response to the quake continued to reverberate, the Turkish prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, turned his wrath on what he called "demoralizing" coverage in the local media.

"The media's mission is to relay the public's complaints, but it is getting out of hand," Ecevit told journalists. "Our nation at this moment needs morale. One has to stay away from demoralizing coverage."

However, Ecevit distanced himself from a decision Tuesday by a state-run media regulatory agency to close a private television station for a week because of its aggressively critical coverage of the government's handling of the crisis.

In recent years many local journalists--chiefly those showing empathy toward Kurds--have been arrested in Turkey. But Turkish media have been more or less free so far to lambaste the government and characterize its crisis management performance as inept.