Grim hunt for survivors as earthquake toll tops 1,000

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Rescue workers struggled yesterday to find survivors trapped in the rubble after an earthquake in Algeria killed more than 1,000 people and injured almost 7,000.

Rescue workers struggled yesterday to find survivors trapped in the rubble after an earthquake in Algeria killed more than 1,000 people and injured almost 7,000.

The tremor, felt as far away as Spain, measured 6.8 on the Richter scale. It struck at 7.44pm on Wednesday when many families were gathering at home for dinner.

Last night British volunteers flew out from Stansted on a jet chartered by the Government to help with rescue efforts. A 23-strong team from the International Rescue Corps (IRC) was joined by 10 men and two women from the charity Rapid UK ­ Rescue And Preparedness In Disasters. Julie Ryan, a spokeswoman for the IRC, which includes firefighters, paramedics, coastguards and civil engineers, said: "Our team is a first-line search and rescue team. They will use specialist search equipment, listening devices, video probes and thermal imaging devices and are specially trained to work with collapsed buildings."

The worst devastation was in the town of Reghaia, east of Algiers, where a seven-storey block of 78 flats collapsed, and more than 350 people were feared dead.

"The women screamed, the children cried, people yelled 'God is Great!'," said Hakim Derradji in Rouiba, near the epicentre of the quake. "It was horrible. It was like we had been bombed."

In Algiers, about 60 buildings were destroyed, among them the Training Centre for the National Sporting Elite, where more than 200 bodies were found in the early hours of yesterday morning.

At the city's Mustapha hospital, families gathered to inquire about loved ones. Police forced back a growing crowd. Ahmed, 40, who had come to Algiers from Rouiba, a relatively prosperous city 20 miles from the eastern edge of Algiers, said: "I want to see my brother. I want to know if he is dead or still alive."

Algerian television showed the President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, visibly moved, holding hands with a middle-aged woman in hospital whose face and lips were shaking uncontrollably. Mohcine Douali, who lives in the centre of Algiers, said: "It was a great shock. I ran out to the street with my wife and my two daughters and no one has been able to sleep because of the aftershocks."

Some 200 aftershocks hit northern Algeria in the first two hours after the quake and authorities said more would follow. In the city of Rouiba, one building after another was reduced to rubble.

Hospitals in many cities found it almost impossible to cope. In some cities, the dead had to be piled up outside the hospitals and patients were treated in the open air. Dozens of victims were lined up under sheets and blankets, some of them clearly children. "There were so many wounded, we couldn't count them," one harassed doctor said.

There are fears that the death toll will rise. "Unfortunately we have not finished establishing these increasingly tragic figures," said Ahmed Ouyahia, the Prime Minister, said. "What is worrying us is that there are still many under the rubble."

The authorities said they feared that the earthquake had damaged health facilities as well as the water and sanitation infrastructure.

The US Geological Survey said the earthquake was the biggest to hit Algeria since 1980, when one measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale killed up to 5,000 people.