A powerful earthquake devastated an isolated, picturesque region of northern Morocco on Tuesday, killing more than 560 people as they slept, injuring hundreds more and laying ruin to villages that suffered for decades under government neglect.
Rescuers with pickaxes and sniffer dogs were searching for survivors trapped under the rubble of their fragile mud-and-stone homes, which crumbled easily in the 6.5-magnitude temblor.
Victims were most likely women, children and the elderly because men in the region tend to emigrate to the Netherlands and Germany in search of work, said Mohammed Ziane, a former human rights minister.
The death toll climbed steadily throughout the day as rescuers began reaching the hard-hit areas and finding corpses, officials said. The official MAP news agency said late Tuesday at least 564 people were dead and 300 injured. Of those, 80 people were hospitalized, the agency said. Officials earlier had put the injury toll at 600.
Fate of three villages unclear
There was concern about the fate of three villages — Ait Kamra, Tamassint and Imzourn — where 30,000 people live in mud homes unable to withstand a major temblor.
The death toll had steadily climbed throughout the day as rescuers began reaching the hard-hit areas. 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 preparing for takeoff.
However, rescuers reported difficulties in reaching the affected area, located in the foothills of the Rif Mountains and served by narrow, poor roads.
The death toll had been expected to rise throughout the day, the Interior Ministry said.
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 Andalucia and southeast Murcia. The quake was also felt in the Spanish North African enclave of Melilla.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the quake registered 6.5 on the open-ended Richter scale and was centered 100 miles northeast of Fes in the Mediterranean Sea. It occurred about one mile underground at 2:27 a.m. local time.
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.”
Al-Hoceima, the largest city in northern Morocco, is populated by Berbers. The region suffers from extreme poverty and underdevelopment and had been neglected by the government for decades after a rebellion in 1960.
The local economy is sustained by fishing and by farmers who grow cannabis.
Quake in France
U.S. Geological Survey spokesman Butch Kinerney said the earthquake’s strength and depth could lead to damage along the coasts.
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 15,000 people were killed after a devastating quake shook the southern city of Agadir and surrounding regions.
The last time a major earthquake battered North Africa was on May 21, 2003, when more than 2,200 people were killed and 10,000 injured after a temblor devastated northern Algeria.