AL HOCEIMA, Morocco – A powerful earthquake devastated an isolated, picturesque region of northern Morocco on Tuesday, killing more than 560 people as they slept, injuring hundreds more and laying ruin to villages that suffered for decades under government neglect.
Rescuers with pick axes and sniffer dogs were searching for survivors trapped under the rubble of their fragile mud-and-stone homes, which crumbled easily in the 6.5-magnitude temblor. Victims were most likely women, children and the elderly because men in the region tend to emigrate to the Netherlands and Germany in search of work, said Mohammed Ziane, a former human rights minister.
The quake, which rattled apartment buildings as far away as southern Spain, destroyed rural communities near the coastal city of Al Hoceima (search), a hideaway tucked between the Rif Mountains (search) and the Mediterranean Sea that draws European tourists with its sandy beaches.
The death toll climbed steadily throughout the day as rescuers began reaching the hard-hit areas and finding corpses, officials said. The official MAP news agency said late Tuesday at least 564 people were dead and 300 injured. Of those, 80 people were hospitalized, the agency said. Officials earlier had put the injury toll at 600.
Selaam Bennaissa, a farmer who lives in Ait Daoud, 12 miles from Al Hoceima, said he was home when the quake struck at 2:27 a.m., and barely escaped before his house came crashing down.
"Fortunately it didn't fall on me," he said. He estimated about 90 percent of the houses in his village collapsed.
Authorities were scrambling to reach about a half-dozen remote villages, including Ait Kamara, Tamassint and Imzourn, where 36,000 people live.
Josephine Shields of the International Committee of the Red Cross (search), citing civil defense officials in Al Hoceima, said she heard reports that Ait Kamara -- a village of 6,000 -- was destroyed.
Rescuers reported difficulties getting to the stricken area in mountain foothills and served by narrow, poor roads. As they arrived, they found corpses; some families already had buried their dead.
French LCI television showed men with pick axes chipping their way through debris left by flattened buildings -- while others used their bare hands -- to try to reach trapped victims.
More than 200 relief workers from the Moroccan Red Crescent were at the scene, along with helicopters filled with emergency supplies.
"The most urgent priority is to search for survivors and give them proper medical attention," Baddredine Bensaoud, secretary-general of the Moroccan Red Crescent, said in a statement.
Many survivors braved their first chilly, wet night without a home in makeshift tents to shelter themselves. Some people slept outside in plastic chairs, bundled in blankets. Many of those with homes still standing were afraid to sleep indoors for fear of aftershocks.
The region's hospitals were overwhelmed, said Abdelbaki Ouazzani, president of Red Crescent for the Al Hoceima region.
"The scene was horrible," he said. "All the families and children were crying in the hospitals."
With only light structural damage in some places, Al Hoceima itself was largely spared.
An aftershock with a magnitude of 4.1 was felt outside Al Hoceima at 11:04 a.m., according to the official MAP news agency, citing the geophysical laboratory of the National Scientific and Technical Research Center.
Although a tourist destination because of its Mediterranean beaches, the region largely suffers from extreme poverty and underdevelopment because of government neglect following a Berber rebellion in 1958. The local economy is sustained by fishing and by farmers who grow cannabis.
However, King Mohammed VI has taken steps to integrate the north more fully into his Muslim kingdom. In 2002, he issued his annual Throne Speech from Tangiers, then traveled east to Tetouan, where Berber chiefs assembled on horseback in full regalia to pay him homage. He was planning to travel to the quake zone late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
The temblor reverberated across the Strait of Gibraltar and was centered 100 miles northeast of Fez, about one mile underground in the Mediterranean, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The quake was felt across much of southern Spain, but no damage or injuries were reported there. News reports said it was most noticed in tall apartment blocks of southern Andalusia and southeast Murcia.
Morocco's deadliest earthquake was in 1960, when 12,000 people were killed after a devastating quake destroyed the southern city of Agadir.