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Powerful Earthquake Rocks Algeria - 2003-05-22

Algeria says at least 540 people are dead and more than 4,600 injured following Wednesday night's earthquake - the strongest to hit the North African country in two decades. France says it is rushing rescue workers and emergency equipment to northern Algeria to aid search efforts.

Cries of panic and anguish fill the streets of Algiers, and areas east of the capital as rescue workers and volunteers search frantically for survivors in the rubble.

State radio is issuing emergency appeals for medical help and blood donors to aid quake victims. It is also calling on engineers to help restore electricity, which was cut in some neighborhoods of Algiers.

Algerians say some apartment buildings toppled like decks of cards when the tremor hit. In the worst affected town of Boumerdes, 50 kilometers east of Algiers, the violent shaking flattened a dozen buildings. Thousands are feared to be trapped under mounds of concrete.

The quake measured 6.7 on the Richter scale. Earthquake expert Sandy Steacy, a geophysicist at University of Ulster in Britain, says Algeria lies on a geological fault line several hundred kilometers long, and so the quake is not surprising.

"Basically what's going on is in the Mediterranean Sea, that you have essentially closure of the sea so that Africa is moving north, northwest with respect to Europe and, so you essentially you have a number of faults then, along the north coast of Africa, particularly north west Africa and that's where this earthquake occurred. So, it's not unexpected at all," she explained.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has visited the wounded and has toured areas devastated by the quake.

Algeria's former colonial ruler, France, says it has rushed 120 rescue workers to Algeria, as well as sniffer dogs and emergency equipment. Many quake survivors, terrified by the continuing aftershocks, spent the night outside their homes or in public parks. Others packed their cars with their belongings, including mattresses, and have fled the area.