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A rescue workers takes part in a rescue operation after the earthquake, in Moulay Ibrahim village, near Marrakech, Morocco. Image Credit: AP

Tafeghathte, Morocco: A magnitude 3.9 aftershock rattled Moroccans on Sunday as they prayed for victims of the nation’s strongest earthquake in more than a century and worked to rescue survivors while soldiers and workers brought water and supplies to mountain villages in ruins.

The death toll has risen to 2,122, while 2,421 people were injured, state TV says.

Authorities declared three days of national mourning, but the Red Cross warned that it could take years to repair the damage.

The United Nations estimated that 300,000 people were affected by Friday night's magnitude 6.8 quake and some Moroccans complained on social networks that the government wasn’t allowing more help from outside. International aid crews were prepared to deploy, but remained in limbo waiting for the Morocco government to request their assistance.

With strong tremors also felt in the coastal cities of Rabat, Casablanca and Essaouira, the quake caused widespread damage and sent terrified residents and tourists scrambling to safety in the middle of the night.

"I was nearly asleep when I heard the doors and the shutters banging," said Ghannou Najem, a Casablanca resident in her 80s who was visiting Marrakesh when the quake hit.

"I went outside in a panic. I thought I was going to die alone."

Morocco on Saturday declared three days of national mourning after the deadly earthquake overnight killed more than 1,000 people, an announcement from the royal palace said.
"Three days of national mourning have been decided, with flags to fly at half-mast on all public buildings," said a statement published by the official MAP news agency after King Mohamed VI chaired a meeting to discuss the disaster.
The meeting was held after Friday night's earthquake, the deadliest to hit the North African country in decades, hit southwest of tourist hotspot Marrakesh, killing at least 1,037 people and injuring another 1,204, many of them critically.

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.

In the late afternoon, soldiers continued to search through debris, but most survivors headed to the cemetery where loud screams punctuated the last rites as some 70 villagers were laid to rest.

"Three of my grandchildren and their mother were killed - they are still under the rubble," villager Omar Benhanna, 72, told AFP. "Just a while ago, we were all playing together," he added.

It was the strongest-ever quake to hit the North African kingdom, and one expert described it as the region's "biggest in more than 120 years".

"Where destructive earthquakes are rare, buildings are simply not constructed robustly enough... so many collapse, resulting in high casualties," said Bill McGuire, professor emeritus at Britain's University College London.

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Residents flee their homes after an earthquake in Moulay Brahim village, near the epi centre of the earthquake, outside Marrakech, Morocco. Image Credit: AP

The latest update from the interior ministry late Saturday showed the quake had killed at least 2,012 people, the vast majority in Al-Haouz, the epicentre, and Taroudant provinces.

Another 2,059 people were injured, including 1,404 in a critical condition, the ministry said.

Civil defence Colonel Hicham Choukri who is heading relief operations told state television earlier the epicentre and strength of the earthquake created "an exceptional emergency situation".

After a meeting chaired by King Mohammed VI, the palace announced three days of national mourning, with flags to fly at half-mast on all public buildings.

'Unbearable' screams

Faisal Badour, an engineer, said he felt the quake three times in his building in Marrakesh.

"There are families who are still sleeping outside because we were so scared of the force of this earthquake," he said. "The screaming and crying was unbearable."

Frenchman Michael Bizet, 43, who owns three traditional riad houses in Marrakesh's old town, told AFP he was in bed when the quake struck.

"I thought my bed was going to fly away. I went out into the street half-naked and immediately went to see my riads. It was total chaos, a real catastrophe, madness," he said.

Footage on social media showed part of a minaret collapsed on Jemaa el-Fna square in the historic city.

An AFP correspondent saw hundreds of people flocking to the square to spend the night for fear of aftershocks, some with blankets while others slept on the ground.

Houda Outassaf, a local resident, said she was "still in shock" after feeling the earth shake beneath her feet - and losing relatives.

"I have at least 10 members of my family who died... I can hardly believe it, as I was with them no more than two days ago," she said.

The regional blood transfusion centre in Marrakesh called on residents to donate blood for the injured.

The Royal Moroccan Football Federation announced that a Cup of African Nations qualifier against Liberia, due to have been played on Saturday in the coastal city of Agadir, had been postponed indefinitely.

Significant damage likely

"We heard screams at the time of the tremor," a resident of Essaouira, 200 kilometres (125 miles) west of Marrakesh, told AFP. "Pieces of facades have fallen."

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."

Foreign leaders expressed their condolences and many offered assistance, including Israel with which Morocco normalised relations in 2020.

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Neighbour and regional rival Algeria announced it was suspending a two-year-old ban on all Moroccan flights through its airspace to enable aid deliveries and medical evacuations.

US President Joe Biden said he was "deeply saddened by the loss of life and devastation".

Chinese leader Xi Jinping expressed "deep grief for the victims" and hope that "the Moroccan government and people will be able to overcome the impact of this disaster".

In 2004, at least 628 people were killed and 926 injured when a quake hit Al Hoceima in northeastern Morocco, and in 1960 a magnitude 6.7 quake in Agadir killed more than 12,000. The 7.3-magnitude El Asnam earthquake in Algeria killed 2,500 people and left at least 300,000 homeless in 1980.

 The crucial hours 

The two villages lie in Al-Haouz province, site of the quake epicentre, which suffered the most deaths, 1,293, followed by Taroudant province with 452 lives lost, authorities reported.

Citizens on Sunday rushed to hospitals in Marrakesh to donate blood to help the injured.

Spain's defence ministry said an A400 airlifter took off from Zaragoza with 56 rescuers and four search dogs headed for Marrakesh to "help in the search and rescue of survivors".

"We will send whatever is needed because everyone knows that these first hours are key, especially if there are people buried under rubble," Defence Minister Margarita Robles told Spanish public television.

Many residents of the usually bustling tourist hotspot of Marrakesh spent a second night sleeping on the streets, huddled together under blankets and among bags filled with their belongings.

One of them, Fatema Satir, said many stayed outside for fear of their houses collapsing.

"There is no help for us," Satir said. "Our houses have been cracked, others destroyed - like my daughter's house which was wiped out. We are in a chaotic state."

In the city's historic Jemaa el-Fna square, about 20 people were huddled on the ground, wrapped in blankets, while others stayed on the lawn of the nearby town hall, its 12th-century ramparts partially collapsed.

The kingdom declared three days of national mourning, and a prayer for the quake victims was to be held Sunday in all of the kingdom's mosques.

Morocco's interior ministry said on Saturday evening that authorities are "mobilised to speed up rescue operations and evacuate the injured."

In addition to Spain, several countries offered aid.

French President Emmanuel Macron said his country has mobilised "all technical and security teams to be able to intervene, when the Moroccan authorities deem it useful." Macron, along with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the heads of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, African Union and European Commission, also pledged, in a joint statement, to "mobilise our technical and financial tools and assistance" to help the people of Morocco.

Long recovery ahead

The United States said it also had search-and-rescue teams ready to deploy, and Pope Francis on Sunday again expressed support for those affected by the disaster.

"I thank the rescuers and all those who are working to alleviate the suffering of the people," he said from the Vatican window above St Peter's Square.

Algeria, which has long had tense relations with neighbouring Morocco, opened its airspace, which had been closed for two years, to flights carrying humanitarian aid and evacuating the injured.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose country in 2020 established ties with Morocco, offered to send search-and-rescue teams, declaring that "Israel stands by Morocco in its difficult time".

The Red Cross warned that it could take years to repair the damage.

"It won't be a matter of a week or two... We are counting on a response that will take months, if not years," said Hossam Elsharkawi, its Middle East and North Africa director.

The quake was the deadliest in Morocco since a 1960 earthquake destroyed Agadir and killed more than 12,000 people.