A magnitude 6.8 earthquake has hit Morocco killing at least 2,012 people, injuring more than 2,059, damaging ancient buildings, and sending terrified residents fleeing their homes into the streets for safety.
Troops and emergency services scrambled on Saturday to reach remote mountain villages, the epicentre of the quake, where casualties are still feared trapped, as authorities declared three days of national mourning in the wake of the deadliest quake in decades.
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Montasir Itri, a resident of the mountain village of Asni near the epicentre, said most houses there were damaged. “Our neighbours are under the rubble and people are working hard to rescue them using available means in the village,” he said.
Residents of Marrakesh, the nearest big city to the epicentre, said some buildings collapsed in the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Local television showed images of a fallen mosque minaret with rubble lying on smashed cars.
The Interior Ministry urged calm saying in a televised statement the quake hit the provinces of Al Haouz, Ouarzazate, Marrakesh, Azilal, Chichaoua and Taroudant.
The temblor hit shortly after 11pm local time (22:00 GMT) on Friday evening, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
The USGS estimated the epicentre occurred in the Atlas Mountains, some 75km (44 miles) from Marrakesh, the fourth largest city in the country.
Search teams frantically scoured collapsed buildings for those trapped.
“The Royal Armed Forces, local authorities, security services and civil protection … continue to mobilise and harness all means and capabilities in order to intervene, provide the necessary assistance, and assess the damage,” the interior ministry said.
Journalist Noureddine Bazine from Marrakesh described the situation as an “horrific night”.
“It was chaos the moment the earthquake happened, we’re still try to process what happened because it was so sudden,” he told Al Jazeera. “In Marrakesh, the most damage was in the old city because the buildings are prone to collapse because of their fragile state.”
Eid al-Tarazi, a professor of seismology in Jordan, told Al Jazeera “hundreds of aftershocks could happen”.
“People will need to stay away from the buildings that are not strong because they are prone to collapse. We expect the aftershocks could continue for three to four weeks,” he said.
Local media reported roads leading to the mountain region around the epicentre were jammed with vehicles and blocked with collapsed rocks, slowing rescue efforts.
Abderrahim Ait Daoud, the head of a town in the area, told the Moroccan news site 2M that several homes nearby had partly or totally collapsed, and electricity and roads were cut off in some places.
He also said authorities were working to clear roads in al-Haouz province to allow passage for ambulances and aid to populations affected. Large distances between mountain villages mean it will take time to learn the full extent of the damage, he added.
Moroccans posted videos showing buildings reduced to rubble and dust, and parts of the famous red walls that surround the old city in Marrakesh damaged.
Tourists and others posted videos of people screaming and evacuating restaurants in the city. Shocked residents in Marrakesh and Casablanca fled out of buildings and onto the streets.
One Marrakesh resident, Brahim Himmi, said he spotted ambulances leaving the city’s historic old town. He also said building facades had been damaged as the earth shook.
While earthquakes in the region are “uncommon but not unexpected”, one of this magnitude has not been seen in the immediate area in more than 120 years.
“Since 1900, there have been no earthquakes M6 [magnitude 6] or larger within 500km of this earthquake, and only nine M5 [magnitude 5] and larger,” the USGS said on its website.
Most of those previous earthquakes occurred further to the east as well, the agency added.
Friday evening’s earthquake was a relatively shallow one, occurring at a depth of 18.5km (11.5 miles). The USGS explained that “oblique-reverse faulting” in the Atlas Mountains was the cause of the earthquake.
The last major earthquake to strike Morocco occurred in 2004, killing more than 600 people. That temblor, dubbed the al-Hoceima earthquake, was positioned on an active plate boundary on the country’s northernmost coast, bordering the western Mediterranean Sea. It clocked in at a magnitude of 6.3.
An even larger earthquake struck neighbouring Algeria in 1980. Known as the el-Asnam earthquake, the magnitude 7.3 event was the strongest seismic activity the region had seen in centuries. Also originating in the Atlas Mountain range, it levelled houses, leaving 300,000 people on the street and at least 2,600 people dead.
Messages of support began to roll in from around the world on Saturday.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz posted condolences on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, currently hosting the Group of 20 summit of the world’s largest economies, wrote, “India is ready to offer all possible assistance to Morocco in this difficult time.”
A UN spokesperson said “the United Nations is ready to assist the government of Morocco in its efforts to assist the impacted population”.
Les premières vidéos des dégâts du séisme commencent à être publiées ! 😥🇲🇦
— TFT MOROCCO (@TFT_Morocco) September 8, 2023