- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — A powerful earthquake struck northern Morocco early yesterday, toppling mud-brick and stone houses and killing more than 560, the Red Cross said. Many of the victims were women, children and the elderly.

The quake shook rural areas near the Mediterranean city of Al Hoceima, and there were deep concerns about the fate of three outlying villages — Ait Kamara, Tamassint and Imzourn — where 30,000 people live in mud and stone structures that are unable to withstand a major natural disaster.

The official MAP news agency said late yesterday that at least 564 persons were dead and 300 injured.

Of those, 80 were hospitalized, the agency said. Officials earlier had put the injury toll at 600.

The region rocked by the quake was inhabited by a large population of non-Arab Berbers.

Authorities have tallied at least 140 deaths in Ait Kamara.

Mohammed Ziane, a former human rights minister, said it was highly likely that most quake victims were the vulnerable and the old. “Most people living in this area are women, children and old people. The men leave for jobs in the Netherlands and Germany.”

The death toll climbed steadily throughout the day as rescuers began reaching the hard-hit areas and finding corpses, officials said.

King Mohammed VI, in a condolence message, called the temblor a “challenge of destiny.”

Rescuers reported difficulties in reaching the stricken area, located in the foothills of the Rif Mountains and served by narrow, poor roads.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the 6.5-magnitude quake was centered 100 miles northeast of Fez, in the Mediterranean Sea. It occurred about a mile below the seabed at 2:27 a.m., when most people were sleeping.

Al Hoceima, one of the largest cities in northern Morocco and with a large Berber population, appeared to have been spared. The town, originally a military garrison, was founded by the Spanish early in the 20th century. It was named Villa Sanjuro at the time.

While a tourist destination because of its Mediterranean beaches, the region is beset by extreme poverty and underdevelopment because of government neglect after a Berber rebellion in 1960. The local economy is sustained by fishing and by farmers who grow cannabis.

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 buildings in southern Andalusia and southeast Murcia. The quake was also felt in the Spanish North African enclave of Melilla.

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