AL HOCEIMA, Morocco -- A powerful earthquake devastated an isolated, picturesque region of northern Morocco yesterday, killing more than 560 people as they slept, injuring hundreds, and laying ruin to villages that suffered for decades from government neglect.
Rescuers with pick axes and trained dogs were searching for survivors trapped under the rubble of their fragile mud-and-stone homes, which crumbled in the 6.5-magnitude temblor. Victims were most likely women, children, and the elderly because the men in the region tend to immigrate 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, a hideaway tucked between the Rif Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea that draws European tourists with its sandy beaches.
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. He estimated that about 90 percent of the houses in his village collapsed.
Authorities were scrambling to reach about a half-dozen remote communities, including Ait Kamara, Tamassint, and Imzourn, a city of 36,000.
Josephine Shields of the International Committee of the Red Cross, 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, which is in the mountain foothills and is 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, while others used their bare hands to try to reach 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.
Ambulances pulled up to Mohammed V hospital in Al Hoceima in a steady stream. On the edge of town, those left homeless by the quake began erecting tents of plastic sheeting for protection against the chilly night.
Al Hoceima itself was largely spared, with only light structural damage in some places.
Authorities estimated a preliminary toll of more than 300 deaths based on contacts with other villages, said a spokesman for authorities in Ait Kamara, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Doctors at Mohammed V said they thought the toll might reach 400 or more.
Shields, speaking from Tunis, said her reports indicated at least 600 people were injured. "The hospital services and health centers have been saturated," she said.
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 last night or this morning.
The temblor reverberated across the Strait of Gibraltar and was centered 100 miles northeast of Fez, about a mile underground in the Mediterranean, according to the US Geological Survey.
Morocco's deadliest earthquake was in 1960, when 12,000 people were killed after a temblor destroyed the southern city of Agadir.