Morocco’s deadliest earthquake in decades has killed at least 2,012 people, authorities said on Saturday, as troops and emergency services scrambled to reach remote mountain villages where casualties are still feared trapped.
Authorities declared three days of national mourning, but the Red Cross warned that it could take years to repair the damage.
The 6.8-magnitude quake struck late on Friday in a mountainous area 72km southwest of the city of Marrakech, the US Geological Survey reported.
Tremors were felt as far away as Huelva and Jaen in southern Spain. The World Health Organisation said more than 300,000 people were affected in Marrakech and surrounding areas.
Civil defence Colonel Hicham Choukri, who is heading relief operations told state television earlier the epicentre and strength of the earthquake created “an exceptional emergency situation”.
After a meeting chaired by King Mohammed VI, the palace announced three days of national mourning, with flags to fly at half-mast on all public buildings.
With strong tremors also felt in the coastal cities of Rabat, Casablanca and Essaouira, the quake caused widespread damage and sent terrified residents and tourists scrambling to safety in the middle of the night.
‘I thought I was going to die alone’
“I was nearly asleep when I heard the doors and the shutters banging,” said Ghannou Najem, a Casablanca resident in her 80s who was visiting Marrakech when the quake hit.
“I went outside in a panic. I thought I was going to die alone.”
In the mountain village of Tafeghaghte, near the quake’s epicentre, virtually no buildings were left standing. The traditional clay bricks used by the region’s Berber inhabitants proved no match for the rare quake.
In the late afternoon, soldiers continued to search through debris, but most survivors headed to the cemetery where some 70 villagers were laid to rest.
“Three of my grandchildren and their mother were killed – they are still under the rubble,” villager Omar Benhanna, 72, told AFP. “Just a while ago, we were all playing together.”
It was the strongest-ever quake to hit the North African kingdom, and one expert described it as the region’s “biggest in more than 120 years”.
“Where destructive earthquakes are rare, buildings are simply not constructed robustly enough… so many collapse, resulting in high casualties,” said Bill McGuire, professor emeritus at Britain’s University College London.
Updated interior ministry figures on Saturday showed the quake killed at least 2,012 people, the vast majority in al-Haouz, the epicentre, and Taroudant provinces.
Another 2,059 people were injured, including 1,404 in a critical condition, the ministry said.
Nearly all the houses in the area of Asni, some 40km south of Marrakech, were damaged, and villagers were preparing to spend the night outside. Food was in short supply as roofs had collapsed on kitchens, said villager Mohamed Ouhammo.
Montasir Itri, a resident of Asni, said the search was on for survivors.
‘Our neighbours are under the rubble and people are working hard to rescue them using available means in the village’
– Montasir Itri, resident of Asni, 40km from Marrakech
“Our neighbours are under the rubble and people are working hard to rescue them using available means in the village,” he said.
The village of Tansghart in the Ansi area, on the side of a valley where the road from Marrakech rises up into the High Atlas, was badly hit, according to Reuters.
Abdellatif Ait Bella, a labourer, lay on the ground, barely able to move or speak, his head bandaged from wounds caused by falling debris.
“We have no house to take him to and have had no food since yesterday,” said his wife Saida Bodchich, fearing for the future of their family of six with their sole breadwinner so badly hurt. “We can rely on nobody but God.”
The village is already mourning ten deaths including two teenage girls, an inhabitant said.
Faisal Badour, an engineer, said he felt the quake three times in his building in Marrakech.
“There are families who are still sleeping outside because we were so scared of the force of this earthquake,” he said. “The screaming and crying was unbearable.”
Frenchman Michael Bizet, 43, who owns three traditional riad houses in Marrakech’s old town, told AFP he was in bed when the quake struck.
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“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.
Footage on social media showed part of a minaret collapsed on 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 with blankets while others slept on the ground.
Houda Outassaf, a local resident, said she was “still in shock” after feeling the earth shake beneath her feet – and losing relatives.
“I have at least 10 members of my family who died… I can hardly believe it, as I was with them no more than two days ago,” she said.
The regional blood transfusion centre in Marrakech called on residents to donate blood for the injured.
One of those who did donate blood was Moroccan football star Achraf Hakimi, who posted a picture of himself giving blood as hospitals said they were running out of blood bag reserves and urged people to donate.
“This time, the priority is to give blood to people in critical situations. Donating blood is everyone’s responsibility to save as many lives as possible. Your help is needed,” Hakimi captioned his post on X, formally known as Twitter.
The Royal Moroccan Football Federation announced that a Cup of African Nations qualifier against Liberia, due to have been played on Saturday in the coastal city of Agadir, had been postponed indefinitely.
Significant damage likely
The USGS PAGER system, which provides preliminary assessments on the impact of earthquakes, issued a “red alert” for economic losses, saying extensive damage is probable.
The Red Cross said it was mobilising resources to support the Moroccan Red Crescent, but its Middle East and North Africa director, Hossam Elsharkawi, warned: “We are looking at many months if not years of response.”
Foreign leaders expressed their condolences and many offered assistance, including Israel, with which Morocco normalised relations in 2020.
Neighbour and regional rival Algeria announced it was suspending a two-year-old ban on all Moroccan flights through its airspace to enable aid deliveries and medical evacuations.
In a statement, Algeria’s presidency said it was ready to provide humanitarian aid and offer all its material and human capabilities in solidarity with the Moroccan people.
US President Joe Biden said he was “deeply saddened by the loss of life and devastation”.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping expressed “deep grief for the victims” and hoped that “the Moroccan government and people will be able to overcome the impact of this disaster”.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took to X, formally known as Twitter, to show solidarity with the “Moroccan brothers”.
“We will support our Moroccan brothers in every way in this difficult hour,” Erdogan said.
Turkey’s AFAD disaster management authority said 265 aid workers from AFAD, the Turkish Red Crescent and other Turkish NGOs were ready to travel to the earthquake region in case Morocco called for international assistance. It also said that Turkey was ready to deliver 1,000 tents to the affected areas.
‘We will support our Moroccan brothers in every way in this difficult hour’
– Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Israeli officials said they were preparing to send aid and emergency assistance to Morocco.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent prayers for the well-being of those affected and instructed his government to “provide assistance as necessary to the Moroccan people, including planning to send an aid delegation to the area”, according to his office.
Mohammad Kashani, associate professor of structural and earthquake engineering at the UK’s University of Southampton, compared scenes of the aftermath to images from Turkey in February: “The area is full of old and historical buildings, which are mainly masonry. The collapsed reinforced concrete structures that I saw … were either old or substandard.”
Marrakech is due to host the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank from 9 October.
An IMF spokesperson, asked about the planned meetings, said: “Our sole focus at this time is on the people of Morocco and the authorities who are dealing with this tragedy.”
In 2004, at least 628 people were killed and 926 injured when a quake hit Al Hoceima in northeastern Morocco, and in 1960 a magnitude 6.7 quake in Agadir killed more than 12,000.
The 7.3-magnitude El Asnam earthquake in Algeria killed 2,500 people and left at least 300,000 homeless in 1980.
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