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Race to find survivors as Morocco quake deaths top 2,000

Morocco's deadliest earthquake in decades has killed more than 2,000 people, authorities said Saturday, as troops and emergency services scrambled to reach remote mountain villages where victims 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 Friday in a mountainous area 72 kilometres (45 miles) southwest of the tourist city of Marrakesh, the US Geological Survey reported.

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 was nearly asleep when I heard the doors and the shutters banging," said Ghannou Najem, a Casablanca resident in her 80s who was visiting Marrakesh 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 loud screams punctuated the last rites as 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," he added.

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.


The latest update from the interior ministry late Saturday showed the quake had 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.

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.



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