Moroccan earthquake kills hundreds

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The Independent Online

A powerful earthquake in northern Morocco today killed at least 300 people.

The quake shook rural areas near the Mediterranean city of Al Hoceima, and there were deep worries about the fate of three outlying villages - Ait Kamra, Tamassint and Imzourn - where 30,000 people live in mud structures unable to withstand a major natural disaster.

Authorities have already counted 140 deaths in Al Kamra, and more deaths in surrounding villages for a preliminary death toll of 300.

Mohammed Ziane, a former human rights minister, said it was highly likely that most quake victims were women, children and the elderly.

"This is a real tragedy," said Ziane, a native of Al Hoceima. "Most people living in this area are women, children and old people. The men leave for jobs in the Netherlands and Germany."

The death toll climbed steadily throughout the day as rescuers began reaching the hard-hit areas and finding corpses, officials said. Some families had already buried their dead.

King Mohammed VI, in a condolence message, promised all possible efforts in mobilizing "human and material resources" for the stricken region. The king called the temblor a "challenge of destiny."

Military and civilian rescuers were dispatched to the scene to help survivors and search for victims trapped under rubble, while helicopters filled with emergency supplies were being dispatched.

However, rescuers reported difficulties in reaching the stricken area, located in the foothills of the Rif Mountains and served by narrow, poor roads.

France had two rescue teams of 60 people each, with dogs and other quake rescue abilities, standing by. It also had a separate reconnaissance team of four fire officials waiting for orders to be dispatched.

"There is enormous damage," Mekki Elhankouri, a physician at Bades clinic in Al Hoceima told France 2 television in a telephone interview. "There were three-story buildings that crashed to the ground and are completely crushed."

An aftershock with a magnitude of 4.1 was felt outside Al Hoceima at 11.04 a.m. GMT, according to the official MAP news agency. It quoted the geophysical laboratory of the National Scientific and Technical Research Center.

The death toll was expected to rise throughout the day, the Interior Ministry said. A physician at Mohammed V hospital in Al Hoceima told French television station LCI that there were "many deaths and many injured."

"Most of the injured have broken bones," he said. "Houses collapsed. It was a very, very violent jolt."

According to the US Geological Survey, the 6.5-magnitude quake was centered 100 miles northeast of Fez in the Mediterranean Sea. It occurred about one mile underground at 2:27 a.m. local time.

Al Hoceima, one of the largest cities in northern Morocco and populated by Berbers, appears to have been spared. The town, originally a military garrison, was founded by the Spanish early in the 20th century. It was named Villa Sanjuro at the time but now carries an Arabic name.

While a tourist destination because of its Mediterranean beaches, the region suffers from extreme poverty and underdevelopment because of government neglect following a Berber rebellion in 1960. The local economy is sustained by fishing and by farmers who grow cannabis.

The quake - which reverberated across the Strait of Gibraltar - was felt across much of southern Spain, but no damage or injuries were reported there. News reports said it was most noticed in tall apartment blocks of southern Andalusia and southeast Murcia. The quake was also felt in the Spanish North African enclave of Melilla.

An unrelated temblor Monday evening shook the Alps region in southeast France. No injuries or damage were reported.

The last large earthquake to hit the area measured 6.0 and struck in 1994. But Morocco's deadliest earthquake was in 1960, when 12,000 people were killed after a devastating quake destroyed the southern city of Agadir.

The last time a major earthquake battered North Africa was on 21 May 2003, when more than 2,200 people were killed and 10,000 injured after a temblor devastated northern Algeria.

Morocco is a Muslim monarchy of 31 million people.