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Death Toll Tops 1,000 in Algeria

Earthquake, which also injured nearly 6,800, is described as a 'real catastrophe.' Rescuers show unity as they race against time.

May 23, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The death toll in Algeria's worst earthquake in two decades rose past 1,000 on Thursday as rescue workers battled time and debris to save lives and foreign governments and relief agencies rushed aid to the scene.

"We are dealing with a real catastrophe," Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said on Algerian state radio. "It's a tragic moment. It's a misfortune that hits the whole of Algeria."

Authorities said they had counted 1,092 dead and 6,782 injured as a result Wednesday's magnitude 6.7 quake, whose epicenter was in the eastern outskirts of Algiers, the capital.

The force of the quake sent a small tsunami smashing onto the beaches of the Spanish island of Majorca hundreds of miles away and cut undersea telephone cables, crippling communications between Europe and Algeria.

The devastation was worst in rural areas and coastal towns where low-income housing towers and upscale apartment complexes toppled, killing hundreds, officials and aid workers said.

It was yet another misfortune for Algeria, which in recent years has endured a civil conflict with Islamic guerrillas that has left tens of thousands dead and created a climate of pervasive fear.

Yet the panic and destruction caused by the quake was accompanied by displays of unity, according to aid workers and media reports. Volunteers hurried to afflicted areas to assist overwhelmed hospital workers and dig alongside rescue teams searching for victims trapped in the rubble. The searchers used bulldozers, shovels, pickaxes and their bare hands.

"During the night, many volunteers joined the rescuers. The rescue work continues," Anne LeClerc, chief delegate to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in neighboring Tunisia, said Thursday in a telephone interview.

"They had a lot to do last night, and they will have a lot to do tonight," she said. "In the disaster zone there was a lot of panic, and the aftershocks are continuing. But it appears that the solidarity has been rather impressive."

Support flowed from overseas as France dispatched military aircraft carrying 120 civil defense workers equipped with rescue dogs, high-tech equipment and medical supplies. And French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy went ahead with a previously scheduled trip to Algiers on Thursday evening to demonstrate his support and reinforce the increasingly warm relations between his nation and its former colony. France is home to hundreds of thousands of Algerian immigrants.

The news relayed to international aid officials by their workers in the disaster zone was dire.

"It must be understood that the rescue efforts are very difficult because this was in a very extensive rural area," LeClerc said. "So there are pockets of very difficult access.

"Another difficulty also was the lack of electricity," she added. "The civil protection agency was very effective because it was able to mobilize all the teams and personnel necessary to restore the most infrastructure possible."

Substandard construction typical of many developing countries worsened the devastation and casualties, aid workers said. Aging rural buildings simply disintegrated, according to Stephanie Mantion, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Paris.

But some of the victims died in modern apartment blocks that also failed to withstand the sustained jolt, she said. The quake took place at 7:44 p.m. as many families were having dinner.

"These were quite high towers that collapsed, and that's very worrisome," Mantion said. "In Turkey you have three or four stories maximum. [In Algeria], some of these towers were nine or 10 stories high."

The brunt of the destruction was in Boumerdes, a seaside town about 35 miles east of Algiers. At least 624 deaths were recorded there, according to officials. Rouiba, a suburb in Algiers, also was battered.

Algerian state television broadcast footage of a grim-faced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika visiting packed and chaotic hospitals. He was shown patting the head of an injured child and pressing the hands of a woman who appeared dazed.

In Paris, President Jacques Chirac, who this year received an enthusiastic reception during a trip to Algeria, promised Bouteflika that France would do all it could to help.

"In these particularly dramatic circumstances I express to you, in the name of all the French, my total solidarity and most intense sympathy," Chirac said in a short speech.

Meanwhile, Algerians living in France tried desperately to get word of their families. Some rushed to airports trying to get flights to their homeland. But most flights were canceled, and phone lines were mostly down or overtaxed.

Germany, Spain, Italy and Japan also dispatched aid and rescue teams.

"It's sad to realize during this kind of crisis that we could do so much more if people perceived these nations as nations that need this kind of aid all year long," LeClerc said.

*

Achrene Sicakyuz of The Times' Paris Bureau contributed to this report.

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