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Morocco earthquake: death toll passes 2,400, historic Marrakesh buildings damaged

Most of the casualties from the massive tremor were in an area south of Marrakesh.
A resident navigates through the rubble following a 6.8-magnitude quake in Marrakesh on September 9, 2023. A powerful earthquake that shook Morocco late September 8 killed more than 600 people, interior ministry figures showed, sending terrified residents fleeing their homes in the middle of the night. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP) (Photo by FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images)

Morocco declared three days of mourning after a massive earthquake struck the country late Friday night, killing more than 2,400 people and damaging historic buildings in the North African nation of 37 million. The earthquake affected an area stretching from Marrakesh, a top destination for international travelers, all the way to the Atlas Mountains.

Morocco’s Interior Ministry said Monday that at least 2,497 people had died and more than 2,476 others were injured, in the 6.8-magnitude tremor, the most powerful to have hit the country in decades. 

According to initial reports, more than half of the fatalities from the earthquake were in an area south of Marrakesh. Experts speaking to the UK's Sky News said the death toll could climb "to the thousands."

Hossam Elsharkawi, MENA regional director at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, told Germany’s Deutsche Welle that it could take up to 48 hours to get aid to remote mountain villages because of damage to roads. He called efforts “a race against time” as cold sets in at high altitudes. 

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI ordered his armed forces to mobilize land and air assets, special search and rescue teams and to set up a surgical field hospital, the Associated Press reported. 

The king chaired a meeting to discuss the tragedy where he called for accommodation, food and all other basic needs be made available for those in need, particularly orphans and the vulnerable. 

A local official cited by The Guardian newspaper said most deaths were in mountainous areas that were hard to access.

Moroccan state television showed scenes of petrified citizens huddling outdoors fearing aftershocks as emergency workers worked against the clock to retrieve survivors. In Marrakech citizens were exhorted to donate blood with many responding to the appeal, local officials said. 

Gambia national soccer coach Tom Saintfiet, who was with his team for Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Congo, told the BBC he thought a plane had crashed into his hotel in Marrakesh when the earthquake struck. “It was only 30 seconds but it felt endless. I never in my life saw a building moving like that,” he said.

That game is set to go ahead as scheduled. However, Morocco’s qualifying game against Liberia that was to have taken place Saturday in the coastal city of Agadir was postponed indefinitely in response to the tragedy. 

"The situation is really bad where the quake hit the hardest. They are mountainous regions far from services. People are digging through the rubble themselves,” said Aida Alami, a Moroccan journalist and native of Marrakesh. “It’s too early to assess the full impact and the government’s response,” Alami told Al-Monitor.

Geoff D. Porter, a nonresident fellow at the Combatting Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy and president of North Africa Risk Consultancy, reckons that the Moroccan king and Crown Prince Moulay Hassan will showcase their roles as the protectors of the people and will spearhead humanitarian outreach. "Expect to see a speech from the king and some public appearances by the crown prince," Porter told Al-Monitor.

The United States Geological Survey said the quake hit at 11:11 p.m. local time (22:11 GMT) on Friday and that its epicenter — in Ighil — was close to the Earth’s surface. This makes it a “shallow” quake, which are among the deadliest.

According to initial reports, the fabled ancient walls of Marrakesh that enclose the medina, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a historic mosque by the Jemaa al-Fnaa Square were damaged during the earthquake.

Several world leaders, including Pope Francis, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy, China's Xi Jinping and Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz sent messages of solidarity. 

US Secretary State Antony Blinken joined in the condolences pouring in from across the globe. "The United States is ready to provide any necessary assistance as Morocco responds to this tragedy. Our thoughts are with the Moroccan people, and we offer our unwavering support and solidarity to our Moroccan partners at this tragic time," Blinken said in a statement.

Neighboring Algeria, which cut ties with Morocco last year over the Western Sahara dispute, said its airspace was open to humanitarian flights.

Turkey, which was pummeled by twin earthquakes in February that killed over 50,000 people, said it has placed 265 aid and rescue searchers on alert in case of a distress call from Rabat, in addition to 1,000 tents.

United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan has ordered the establishment of an air bridge to deliver critical relief supplies, and Israel said it was also mobilizing a search and rescue team to send to the kingdom.

The last big earthquake to strike Morocco was in 2004 in the northern Rif Mountains. More than 600 people died in that tremor.  

"Despite the tragedy of the earthquake, Morocco does benefit from strong alliances, particularly with wealthy Gulf nations," Porter noted. "It is likely that they will contribute meaningful humanitarian aid to offset the burden incurred by Morocco itself."

"In terms of the economy," Porter added, "it is likely that Marrakesh will be the focus of recovery efforts. First, it is the most accessible of all the regions hit by the earthquake. Second, it is Morocco's southern economic hub." Not only is it a major tourism destination, and consequently a significant source of hard currency, but it also has a large expat population. The poorer rural areas will take longer to recover.

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