Moroccan rescuers supported by foreign teams on Monday faced an intensifying race against time to dig out any survivors from the rubble of mountain villages after the country’s strongest-ever earthquake.
The 6.8-magnitude quake struck the Atlas mountains late Friday southwest of the tourist centre of Marrakesh. It killed at least 2,862 people and injured more than 2,500 others, according to the latest official toll.
In the disaster-stricken community of Talat Nyacoub, 12 ambulances and several dozen 4X4s from the army and police were deployed while around 100 Moroccan rescuers were searching for signs of life in the collapsed buildings.
Nearby, AFP saw a Spanish team of 30 firefighters, a doctor, nurse and two technicians coordinating with Moroccan authorities before starting to dig, as a helicopter flew overhead.
“The big difficulty is in zones remote and difficult to access, like here, but the injured are choppered out,” Annika Coll, who heads the Spanish team, told AFP.
About 70 kilometres (40 miles) north, another Spanish team from the Military Emergencies Unit (UME) had set up camp since Sunday night on the edge of Amizmiz village.
Moroccan and Spanish rescuers there were hard at work trying to extract five members of a family from a house that had been crushed by the quake.
– ‘Completely lost’ –
AFP journalists in Amizmiz saw Moroccan troops handing out hundreds of blankets to residents who had lost their homes.
“My mother died, her house is ruined. My place in Amizmiz no longer exists so we sleep outside in tents with my two children aged four months and six years,” said Hafid Ait Lahcen, 32, a construction worker.
“No one from the authorities has offered us accommodation. We are completely lost.”
In the rural commune of Ighil, at the epicentre of the quake, helicopters made several round trips to ferry aid, AFP correspondents said.
The roads leading to the village were clogged with ambulances and cars trying to deliver aid, but access had been cut off by a mudslide.
“I walked 15 kilometres on foot from my village… to look for food,” said Lahcen Ait Malik. “Our children have nothing left to eat.”
Albert Vasquez, the Spanish unit’s communications officer, said time was short, warning that “it’s very difficult to find people alive after three days” but “hope is still there”.
The rescuers are assisted by four dogs and microcameras that can be fed into the rubble in an effort to detect signs of life.
For Lahcen and Habiba Barouj, the help came too late.
An ambulance took their father, 81, to hospital with a broken leg.
The previous evening, they buried their mother who was killed in the quake.
“We didn’t see any rescuers. We had to get our father out from the rubble ourselves,” said Habiba Barouj, her face drawn. “Our house has been swallowed up.”
– ‘The village is dead’ –
Rabat on Sunday announced it had accepted offers to send search and rescue teams from Britain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Spain.
Britain said it would send 60 people, as well as search dogs and rescue equipment.
The earthquake wiped out entire villages in the foothills of the Atlas mountains.
Many houses in remote mountain villages were built from mud bricks.
While the foreign teams begin to arrive, Moroccan authorities have erected emergency shelters. Bright yellow tents were visible along the road into Tikht, a village which has effectively ceased to exist.
Members of the government’s civil protection service carried camp beds from a military-type truck toward the tents.
Previously home to at least 100 families, Tikht has been reduced to a tangle of timber, chunks of masonry as well as broken plates, shoes and the occasional intricately patterned rug.
“Life is finished here,” said Mohssin Aksum, 33, who had family in the settlement. “The village is dead.”
Citizens reported to hospitals in Marrakesh and elsewhere to donate blood for the injured. Among the donors were members of Morocco’s national football team and renowned French-Moroccan comic Jamel Debbouze.
Other volunteers organised food and essential goods to help quake victims, after complaints that authorities were slow to respond.
– ‘Mobilise’ –
“Everyone must mobilise,” said one volunteer, Mohamed Belkaid, 65. “And that includes the authorities, but they seem to be absent.”
Yacine Benhania, another volunteer, complained of a “shortage of medicines, particularly for diabetes and hypertension”.
Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch said he had chaired a meeting on Monday dealing with housing and reconstruction in the affected areas.
“Citizens who have lost their homes will receive compensation,” he announced, saying specific details were being decided.
Some parts of Marrakesh’s historic medina and its network of alleyways saw significant damage, with mounds of rubble and crumpled buildings in the World Heritage site.
Dozens of people continued to sleep outdoors overnight in the modern quarter of Marrakesh.
The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva began its session on Monday with a minute’s silence for the quake victims.
“We are part of a global collectivity: humanity,” said Gambia’s ambassador Muhammadu Kah, who proposed the tribute.
The quake was the deadliest in Morocco since a 1960 earthquake destroyed Agadir, killing 12,000-15,000 people.
Originally published as Rescuers race against time as Morocco quake death toll mounts