More than three weeks after a massive earthquake struck northwestern Turkey, government officials say that the final death toll is not likely to rise much above the 15,303 reported so far.

Three days after the Aug. 17 earthquake, the Geneva-based U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the death toll could exceed 40,000, based on information it said it had received from the Turkish government.

But today, government officials said that number is too high. "I don't know where that [40,000] figure came from," said Dogan Ulusoy, a senior Interior Ministry official. "There is absolutely no likelihood of the death toll being that high."

The decision to back away from earlier casualty estimates has fueled accusations that the government is playing down the death toll to minimize its failure to respond effectively to the disaster.

"The government figures do not strike me as convincing; it's just another reflection of how disorganized and ineffective they are," said Ismet Berkan, a columnist with the daily newspaper Radikal, which has led a barrage of media criticism of the government's handling of the disaster.

"The official death toll does not include hundreds or maybe even thousands of victims, who were pulled out and buried by their relatives during the early days following the earthquake," said Sabahattin Yildiz, an Islamic-oriented legislator who is part of a 13-member parliamentary committee investigating the disaster.

"Our findings show that the authorities did not join rescue efforts in earnest until the third day after the earthquake, so we'll never know for sure how many people were buried before that, because most have been unreported," Yildiz said. "What is clear is that had the government intervened earlier, many more lives would have been saved."

A senior Turkish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the current death toll "does not reflect the real figure because nobody knows how many people were buried without being issued death certificates."

The official also pointed out that "hundreds of [collapsed] buildings have not been touched yet. Who knows how many bodies are still buried underneath them?"

Yildiz said his committee's estimate of the death toll is around 22,000. He said initial estimates had probably been inflated because authorities did not realize that many residents of the stricken areas were away on vacation, a view that was echoed by local officials throughout the quake zone.