Rescuers searching for survivors dug through the rubble of collapsed houses in remote mountain villages of Morocco as the armed forces were pressed into action in the wake of the country’s deadliest earthquake in decades.
The World Health Organization said more than 300,000 people have been affected by the disaster. The death toll is expected to rise.
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“The next 24 to 48 hours will be critical in terms of saving lives,” Caroline Holt, global director of operations for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a statement.
Search-and-rescue efforts would be prioritised alongside making sure survivors were taken care of, she said, noting the importance of providing safe drinking water.
Authorities declared three days of national mourning after the magnitude 6.8 earthquake killed more than 2,012 people and injured 2,059, with many left homeless, on Saturday.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI ordered the armed forces to mobilise specialised search-and-rescue teams and a surgical field hospital. The king also called for mosques across the kingdom to hold prayers on Sunday for the victims.
“I was asleep when the earthquake struck. I could not escape because the roof fell on me. I was trapped. I was saved by my neighbours who cleared the rubble with their bare hands,” said Fatna Bechar in Moulay Brahim.
“Now I am living with them in their house because mine was completely destroyed.”
The quake that struck in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains late on Friday night damaged historic buildings in Marrakesh – the nearest city to the epicentre – while most of the fatalities were reported in mountainous areas to the south in the Al-Haouz and Taroudant provinces.
In the mountain village of Tafeghaghte near the quake’s epicentre, virtually no buildings were left standing. The traditional clay bricks used by the region’s Berber inhabitants proved no match for the rare quake.
“Three of my grandchildren and their mother were killed – they are still under the rubble,” said villager Omar Benhanna, 72. “Just a while ago, we were all playing together.”
The epicentre of the earthquake was at a depth of 18.5km (11.5 miles) and occurred about 72km (44 miles) northeast of Marrakesh, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) said.
Lahcen Haddad, a Moroccan senator and former minister, said authorities are responding quickly despite the many challenges, including difficult terrain.
“Moroccan authorities are … getting people to hospitals in Marrakesh. There has been a call to give blood. After the Al Hoceima earthquake in 2004, [authorities] put together a mega plan for a rapid intervention,” he told Al Jazeera.
In historic Marrakesh, people could be seen on state TV clustering in the streets, afraid to go back inside buildings that might still be unstable.
The city’s famous Koutoubia Mosque, built in the 12th century, was damaged but the extent was not immediately clear. Its 69-metre (226-foot) minaret is known as the “roof of Marrakesh”. Moroccans also posted videos showing damage to parts of the famous red walls that surround the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Red Cross said it was mobilising resources to support the Moroccan Red Crescent but its Middle East and North Africa director, Hossam Elsharkawi, warned: “We are looking at many months if not years of response.”
The Moroccan armed forces will deploy rescue teams to provide affected areas with clean drinking water, food supplies, tents and blankets, authorities said.
In the village of Amizmiz, near the epicentre, rescue workers picked through rubble with their bare hands.
Outside a hospital, about 10 bodies lay covered in blankets as grieving relatives stood nearby.
“When I felt the earth shaking beneath my feet and the house leaning, I rushed to get my kids out. But my neighbours couldn’t,” Mohamed Azaw said.
“Unfortunately, no one was found alive in that family. The father and son were found dead and they are still looking for the mother and the daughter.”
Rescuers stood atop the pancaked floors of one building in Amizmiz, 55km (34 miles) south of Marrakesh, bits of carpet and furniture protruding from the rubble. A long queue formed outside the only open shop as people sought supplies.
Underlining the challenges facing rescuers, fallen boulders blocked a road from Amizmiz to a nearby village.
Journalist Younis Ezzouhir told Al Jazeera from Marrakesh that efforts are continuing to clear roads to get to more survivors in affected areas in al-Haouz province, especially the small town of Talat N’Yaaqoub and rural commune there.
“This road faced landslides. It is a mountain road but the nature of the road is that the ground is mud soil, so it is fragile, and with rainfall or earthquakes there can be major amount of dirt and stones falling from the mountains,” Ezzouhir said.
Tremors were felt as far away as Huelva and Jaen in southern Spain.
As news emerged of Morocco’s unfolding earthquake disaster, reactions poured in from the international community.
Turkey, where powerful earthquakes in February killed more than 50,000 people, was among nations expressing solidarity and offering support.
Algeria, which broke off ties with Morocco in 2021 after escalating tensions between the countries focused on the Western Sahara conflict, said it would open its airspace for humanitarian and medical flights.
Despite an outpouring of offers of help from around the world, the Moroccan government has not formally asked for assistance, a step required before outside rescue crews could deploy.
The quake was recorded at a depth of 18.5km, typically more destructive than deeper quakes of the same magnitude. It was Morocco’s deadliest earthquake since 1960 when a quake was estimated to have killed at least 12,000 people, according to the US Geological Survey.