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Morocco quake kills more than 800 people

Marrakesh, Morocco (AFP) – Morocco’s deadliest earthquake in decades has killed at least 820 people, officials said on Saturday, causing widespread damage and sending terrified residents and tourists scrambling to safety in the middle of the night.

The 6.8-magnitude quake struck a mountainous area 72 kilometres southwest of tourist hotspot Marrakesh at 11.11pm (2211 GMT) on Friday, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) reported.

Strong tremors were also felt in the coastal cities of Rabat, Casablanca and Essaouira.

“We felt a very violent tremor, and I realised it was an earthquake,” Abdelhak El Amrani, 33, told AFP by telephone from Marrakesh.

“I could see buildings moving,” said Amrani who went outside, joining many other people, “all in shock and panic. The children were crying and the parents were distraught.”

It was the most powerful quake to ever hit the country, and one expert called it 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 Professor Emeritus at Britain’s University College London Bill McGuire.

Updated Interior Ministry figures on Saturday showed the quake killed 820 people, more than one-third of them in Al-Haouz, the epicentre, and Taroudant provinces. 

The ministry also recorded deaths in Ouarzazate, Chichaoua, Azilal and Youssoufia provinces, as well as in Marrakesh, Agadir and the Casablanca area.

Another 672 people were injured, including 205 in a critical condition, the ministry said.

Faisal Baddour, an engineer, said he felt the earthquake three times in his building.

“There are families who are still sleeping outside because we were so scared of the force of this earthquake,” he said. “It was as if a train was passing close to our houses.”

Frenchman Michael Bizet, 43, who owns three traditional riad houses in Marrakesh’s old town, told AFP that he was in bed when the quake struck.

“I thought my bed was going to fly away. I went out into the street and immediately went to see my riads. It was total chaos, a real catastrophe, madness,” he said.

Bizet shared video of piles of rubble from collapsed walls in the streets.

Other 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, told AFP he was walking around the square when the ground began to shake.

“It was a truly staggering sensation. We’re safe and sound, but I’m still in shock,” he said.

“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.”

Fayssal Badour, another Marrakesh resident, told AFP the earthquake hit while he was driving.

“I stopped and realised what a disaster it was… The screaming and crying was unbearable,” he said.

The Interior Ministry said authorities have “mobilised all the necessary resources to intervene and help the affected areas”. 

The regional blood transfusion centre in Marrakesh called on residents to donate blood for those injured.

In the town of Al-Haouz, near the quake’s epicentre, a family was trapped in the rubble after their house collapsed, local media reported.

“We heard screams at the time of the tremor,” a resident of Essaouira, 200 kilometres west of Marrakesh, told AFP.

“People are in the squares, in the cafes, preferring to sleep outside. Pieces of facades have fallen.”

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 and the disaster is likely widespread.

Past events with this alert level have required a national or international level response, according to the US government agency.

Internet connectivity was disrupted in Marrakesh due to power cuts, according to global Internet monitor NetBlocks.

European leaders offered condolences, as did Russian President Vladimir Putin and Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, along with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

The earthquake was also felt in neighbouring Algeria, where the Algerian Civil Defence said it had not caused any damage or casualties.

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 neighbouring Algeria in 1980 killed 2,500 people and left at least 300,000 homeless.

A woman standing infront of her earthquake-damaged house in the old city in Marrakesh, Morocco. PHOTO: AFP