A huge rescue operation was underway yesterday to help survivors feared trapped under mountains of rubble after a powerful earthquake struck northern Algeria, killing at least 640 and injuring thousands.
The quake, estimated at up to 6 on the open-ended Richter scale, caused panic and left a trail of destruction in several towns to the east of the capital Algiers when it struck at 7:44pm Wednesday evening.
The interior ministry said 540 people had been killed, and warned that the already large toll could rise steeply in the coming hours as daybreak revealed scores of buildings had collapsed. It added that 4,637 had been injured.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika rushed to the worst-affected district, Boumerdes, 50km east of the capital, where the known death toll stood at 256, national radio reported early yesterday.
At least a dozen apartment blocks in the town had been toppled, and buildings had been flattened in several other towns, reports said.
"I was on the balcony, looking at central Algiers when I saw what looked like an enormous dust cloud. I went dizzy as the building began to sway back and forth like a see-saw," said one resident of an Algiers tower block.
In the capital's eastern suburb of Rouiba a three-storey apartment block had collapsed, and rescuers aided by volunteers were trying to pull a young woman called Latifa out of the rubble.
"She's a miracle. She's alive. We put a blanket over her feet, and she's talking to the rescuers and should be brought out," said one resident.
Several kilometers away at Reghaia, a 10-storey apartment block had simply crumpled and entombed its residents, even though many nearby buildings were left intact.
"We are trying to deal with a real national catastrophe," Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia told French radio station RTL after visiting casualties in an Algiers hospital.
Algiers had escaped the worst of the damage from the temblor, the epicenter of which was in Thenia, about 60km east of the capital, and was felt as far away as southern Spain on the other side of the Mediterranean.
But in poorer, densely-populated neighborhoods of the capital such as Bab El-Oued and Belcourt, several old buildings also collapsed.
Many terrified Algiers residents spent the night outside in public parks, and others packed belongings into cars and fled the city.