Tue, May 27, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Earthquake survivors face looting, disease

ALGERIAN TEMBLOR Four days after the earthquake struck, decaying bodies are endangering the health of displaced residents, who began forming security patrols


Looting and disease loomed as threats for survivors of Algeria's devastating earthquake as the death toll neared 2,200 on Sunday and foreign rescuers began to pull out, hope of finding people alive all but gone.

Anger about the paucity and slowness of government aid and rescue efforts coursed through makeshift camps erected by survivors out of tarpaulins, umbrellas and sheets in open spaces amid the wreckage.

Four days after the quake, Algeria was far from establishing a definitive death toll, with countless bodies decaying under the wreckage and endangering the health of survivors camped amid ruins.

As of Sunday, the number of dead stood at 2,162, with another 8,965 injured, the Interior Ministry said.

In Reghaia, in the quake zone east of the capital Algiers, just one flattened 10-story building was thought to hold more than 500 bodies, officials said.

Police and military guards blocked streets to the ruin. The stench of decay cloaked the city, carried by winds that kicked up clouds of dust.

Survivors who lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods banded together to protect what remained, forming patrols to guard their neighborhoods from the threat of looters coming from the suburbs of Algiers, 25km to the west.

Dozens of furious locals dragged a man they accused of stealing jewelry from an evacuated building through the streets by the scruff of his neck. Police struggled to keep the crowd at bay before taking him away in a car.

"People in vans were seen looking around for things they could steal, but they saw we were well prepared," said Samir Helli, 26, who works in a diaper factory. "If they try to take anything, they will be strangled."

This town of 120,000 people, while badly damaged, was spared the worst of the devastation of nearby communities that were almost flattened. While their homes were unsafe to live in, many were able to recover refrigerators, televisions and other belongings. But they also said police, concentrating on protecting shops in the city center, were too overwhelmed to patrol elsewhere.

"We have had to take care of our own security and that of our family by ourselves," said Ahcene Kabash, a construction supervisor who, like many, wore a white mask below his bloodshot eyes against dust and the smell of decay.

Police "haven't helped us, they wouldn't protect anything," he said.

Many called for the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was harangued by angry crowds shouting "the authorities -- killers" when he toured the quake-ravaged town of Boumerdes Saturday, forcing him to cut short his visit.

Several newspapers mirrored the angry mood on their front pages Sunday. "Resign, Mister Bouteflika," Le Matin demanded. "Partez!" -- "Leave!" -- echoed Le Soir d'Algerie.

In Reghaia, officials insisted they were doing all they could and that looting was not a problem.

"This is not like Iraq," said Ahmed Makhloufi, the city's vice president for social affairs.

But outside the fissured town hall, an official fended off angry women, men and even children demanding tents.

"We still need about a thousand tents," the official told the crowd. "Maybe, God willing, we'll have the problem sorted in two or three days."

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