The powerful tremor – Morocco's worst in more than 40 years - toppled mud-brick homes and buried residents in their sleep under tons of rubble in the poor mountain villages around the Mediterranean port city of al-Hasima.

In the village of Ait Kamara, 18km to the south, many houses were flattened like cardboard boxes.

"The death toll has risen to 564," Health Minister Muhammad Biyad Allah said.

The quake measured 6.5 on the Richter scale and struck at around 2.30am when people were asleep.

Big jolt

"I woke up to a big bang I don’t even remember how I managed to escape from the house," local teacher Abd Al-Khaliq said.

His parents, three brothers and sister died in their home which was reduced to rubble.

"My sister was shouting, begging me to lift a big, heavy door under which she was trapped. We could not, she died," the teacher said sobbing.

"It's a total disaster, the world needs to help us," Hasan Hmiduch, head of the town council in the village of Um-Zurin, told Reuters Television.

"We don't have sniffer dogs or any equipment to lift or cut iron bars," he told 2M state television earlier.

"I woke up to a big bang, I don’t even remember how I managed to escape from the house"

Local teacher



Residents, some digging with their bare hands or shovels in their flattened homes, said heavy equipment was needed.

"They sent the military which basically ordered us to stop digging but they couldn't do much themselves for lack of equipment," al-Khaliq said.

Relief hampered

Aftershocks and rain complicated relief efforts in the outlying villages in the foothills of the Rif mountains.

Authorities in al-Hasima struggled to cope with the hundreds of victims.

"As soon as we think we have seen all the dead and injured, more keep coming in ambulances," said a distraught doctor at the main Muhammad V hospital, where dozens of corpses lay.

Josephine Shields, an official with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Tunis said six villages within a 15km radius of al-Hasima had been hit.

"We have been told that the entire affected area has between 300,000 and 400,000 people. It is a remote area, very mountainous, so it is a bit difficult to access."

Morocco's worst recorded quake was in 1960, which destroyed the city of Agadir and killed 12,000 people.