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Algerian Rescue Teams Rush to Find Earthquake Survivors - 2003-05-22

Rescue teams say they are working against time to find survivors trapped under mounds of rubble by a powerful earthquake that struck northern Algeria late Wednesday. They say the quake has killed more than 640 people and has injured nearly 5,000, mainly in areas east of Algiers.

Rescue workers in Algeria say they are facing a very difficult operation to pull earthquake victims out of heaps of concrete that once formed apartment buildings.

Algerians say some apartment buildings toppled like decks of cards when the tremmor 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.

The head of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies North Africa office, Anne Le Clerc, who is based in Tunisia, says she is in constant contact with the Algerian Red Crescent to send in needed workers and relief.

"They have been very busy through the whole night rescuing the victims, transporting them to the hospitals, helping in the national collection of blood and then also providing psychological support to the victims," she said. "And they are still continuing to do that. "

Ms. Le Clerc says electricity cuts in and around Algiers have added to the difficulty. Medical personnel say hospitals in the capital, and hardest-hit towns, like Rouiba, are finding it almost impossible to cope.

Reports from Boumerdes province say bodies have been piled up outside hospitals and patients are being treated in the open air. Algerian authorities are urging doctors and paramedics to provide help and for citizens to donate blood.

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, making it an active earthquake zone.

"Basically what is 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 is not unexpected at all," she explained.

About 200 aftershocks hit northern Algeria in the first two hours following the quake and many more are expected.

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

The Red Cross' Anne Le Clerc says several countries, including France and Germany, have rushed emergency aid to search for quake victims.

"Two teams from the French Red Cross have been offered with dogs to try to find [victims] quickly," she said. "The time factor is crucial in this operation. And the German Red cross is also offering some help, in terms of equipment."

She says that there has been good coordination between the Algerian Red Crescent, the international federation, and the Algerian government.

The Red Cross says emergency supplies like tents, blankets, and generators are being made available to survivors too frightened to stay inside shelters.

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 left the area.