Morocco’s deadliest earthquake in decades has killed more than 2,000 people, authorities said Saturday, as troops and emergency services rushed to reach remote mountain villages where victims are still feared trapped.
Authorities declared three days of national mourning, but the Red Cross warned it could take years to repair the damage.
The magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck late Friday in a mountainous area 45 miles (72 kilometers) southwest of the tourist city of Marrakesh, the US Geological Survey said.
With strong tremors also felt in the coastal cities of Rabat, Casablanca and Essaouira, the earthquake caused widespread damage and sent terrified residents and tourists scrambling to safety in the middle of the night.
“I was almost asleep when I heard the doors and shutters banging,” said Ghannou Najem, a Casablanca resident in his 80s who was visiting Marrakech when the earthquake struck.
“I went outside in a panic. I thought I was going to die alone.”
In the mountain village of Tafeghaghte, near the epicenter of the earthquake, virtually no buildings were left standing. The traditional bricks used by the region’s Berber residents proved no match for the rare earthquake.
In the late afternoon, soldiers continued to search through the rubble, but most survivors went to the cemetery where loud shouts interrupted the last rites as some seventy villagers were buried.
“Three of my grandchildren and their mother died – they are still under the rubble,” villager Omar Benhanna, 72, told AFP. “A while ago we all played together,” he added.
It was the strongest earthquake ever to hit the North African kingdom, with one expert describing it as the “largest to hit the region in more than 120 years”.
“Where devastating earthquakes are rare, buildings are simply not constructed robustly enough… causing many to collapse, causing many casualties,” said Bill McGuire, professor emeritus at Britain’s University College London.
The latest update from the Interior Ministry late Saturday showed that the earthquake had killed at least 2,012 people, the vast majority in Al-Haouz, the epicenter, and Taroudant provinces.
Another 2,059 people were injured, including 1,404 in critical condition, the ministry said.
Civil Defense Colonel Hicham Choukri, who is leading the relief operations, earlier told state television that the epicenter and strength of the earthquake created “an exceptional emergency.”
After a meeting chaired by King Mohammed VI, the palace announced three days of national mourning, with flags on all public buildings to fly at half-mast.
Faisal Badour, an engineer, said he felt the earthquake three times in his building in Marrakech.
“There are families who are still sleeping outside because we were so afraid of the force of this earthquake,” he said. “The screaming and crying was unbearable.”
Frenchman Michael Bizet, 43, owner of three traditional riad houses in Marrakech’s old town, told AFP he was in bed when the earthquake struck.
“I thought my bed was going to fly away. I went out into the street half-naked and immediately went to see my riads. It was total chaos, a real catastrophe, madness,” he said.
Social media shows that part of a minaret has collapsed in Jemaa el-Fna Square in the historic city.
An AFP correspondent saw hundreds of people flocking to the square to spend the night for fear of aftershocks, some carrying blankets while others slept on the floor.
Houda Outassaf, a local resident, said she was “still in shock” after feeling the earth shake under her feet – and losing family members.
“I have at least 10 members of my family who have passed away… I can hardly believe it as I was with them less than two days ago,” she said.
The regional blood transfusion center in Marrakech called on residents to donate blood for the injured.
The Royal Moroccan Football Federation announced that a Cup of African Nations qualifying match against Liberia, due to be played on Saturday in the coastal city of Agadir, has been postponed indefinitely.
Significant damage likely
“We heard screaming at the time of the quake,” a resident of Essaouira, 200 kilometers west of Marrakech, told AFP. “Pieces of facades have fallen.”
The Red Cross said it was mobilizing resources to support the Moroccan Red Crescent, but Middle East and North Africa director Hossam Elsharkawi warned: “We are looking at a response of many months, if not years.”
Foreign leaders expressed condolences and many offered assistance, including Israel with which Morocco normalized relations in 2020.
Neighboring country and regional rival Algeria announced it would suspend a two-year-old ban on all Moroccan flights through its airspace to allow aid deliveries and medical evacuations.
US President Joe Biden said he was “deeply saddened by the loss of life and devastation”.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping expressed his “deep sorrow for the victims” and hoped that “the Moroccan government and people will be able to overcome the consequences of this disaster.”
In 2004, at least 628 people were killed and 926 injured when an earthquake struck Al Hoceima in northeastern Morocco, and in 1960 a magnitude 6.7 earthquake in Agadir killed more than 12,000 people.
The magnitude 7.3 El Asnam earthquake in Algeria in 1980 killed 2,500 people and left at least 300,000 homeless.
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