Nearly two days after a devastating earthquake hit Morocco, killing thousands in the Marrakesh region and overwhelming the country’s rescuers, Rabat had yet to accept on Sunday afternoon most of the offers of assistance pouring in from around the world.
There were sporadic reports of teams arriving in the country: Spain said it sent 56 rescuers and four search dogs after receiving a formal request for help. Qatar also had a team on the way with specialized equipment. Tunisia also said it had dispatched a delegation of over 50 rescue experts.
But many countries were still waiting for authorization from Moroccan authorities amid growing bewilderment by some that with the hours ticking by and the chances of finding survivors dwindling, the nation did not seem to be in a hurry to accept aid.
Arnaud Fraisse, founder of French aid organization Rescuers Without Borders, told Radio France Sunday that he had a team stuck in Paris waiting for the green light, but the Moroccan government was “blocking all rescue teams.” He said he could not explain Rabat’s conduct.
“We know there is a great urgency to save people and dig under the remains of buildings,” said Fraisse. “There are people dying under the rubble, and we cannot do anything to save them.”
Aid offers have poured in from around the world. Among the many countries that have pledged assistance but have not been given the go-ahead were Israel, the US, France, the UK, Turkey, Algeria and Taiwan.
The UN said it had a team in Morocco coordinating with authorities about how international partners can provide support. About 100 teams made up of a total of 3,500 rescuers from around the world are registered with a UN platform and ready to deploy in Morocco when asked, Rescuers Without Borders said.
The United Nations estimated that 300,000 people were affected by the quake and some Moroccans complained on social networks that the government wasn’t allowing more help from outside.
Spain’s Defense Ministry Margarita Robles said that beyond the first team dispatched, the country was preparing a second plane with a rescue team run by the regional government of Madrid.
“We will send whatever is needed because everyone knows that these first hours are key, especially if there are people buried under rubble,” she added.
In Israel, the military and other bodies, including Magen David Adom emergency responders and the IsraAID organization, had prepared rescue teams to set off for the North African country to assist but were unable to depart since Morocco had yet to accept their offers.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Zilberman told The Times of Israel that MASHAV, the ministry’s international aid arm, had prepared a number of alternatives for humanitarian aid shipments depending on the specific needs of the kingdom.
The aid could include food, medicines, medical equipment, tents, water purifiers, and more, but the specifics depend on Rabat’s needs. From the minute Israel gets the requests, it would take only a few hours before a plane is ready to depart, said Zilberman.
In addition to the humanitarian route, Israel was ready to provide search and rescue teams through the IDF, but rescuing quake victims will only be relevant for a few more days.
The Foreign Ministry previously sent five diplomats to Rabat to beef up the staff helping Israelis leave Morocco. To this point, the consular office has not had any cases of Israelis who lost their documents, and the efforts to help Israelis head home have been smooth, said Zilberman.
Officials said Sunday that contact had been established with all 479 Israeli citizens in the country, and all were safe.
The death toll from the massive earthquake stood at some 2,000 as of Sunday afternoon, with authorities speculating that the figure would rise further as rescuers struggled to reach hard-hit remote areas.
The magnitude 6.8 quake on Friday was the biggest to hit the North African country in 120 years.
On Sunday a magnitude 3.9 aftershock rattled Moroccans as they prayed for victims and worked to rescue survivors while soldiers and workers brought water and supplies to mountain villages in ruins.
Those left homeless — or fearing more aftershocks — slept outside Saturday, in the streets of the ancient city of Marrakesh or under makeshift canopies in Atlas Mountain towns like Moulay Brahim, among the hardest-hit. The worst destruction was in small, rural communities that are hard for rescuers to reach because of the mountainous terrain.
Those same areas were shaken anew Sunday by the magnitude 3.9 quake, according to the US Geological Survey. It wasn’t immediately clear if the temblor caused more damage or casualties, but it was likely strong enough to rattle nerves in areas where damage has left buildings unstable and people have spoken of their fears of aftershocks.
The earthquake on Friday toppled buildings not built to withstand such a mighty quake, trapping people in the rubble and sending others fleeing in terror. A total of 2,012 people were confirmed dead and at least 2,059 more people were injured — 1,404 of them critically — Morocco’s Interior Ministry reported Saturday night.
“We felt a huge shake like it was doomsday,” Moulay Brahim resident Ayoub Toudite said. “Ten seconds and everything was gone.”
Flags were lowered across Morocco, as King Mohammed VI ordered three days of national mourning starting Sunday. The army mobilized specialized search and rescue teams, and the king ordered water, food rations and shelter to be provided to those who lost their homes.
The king called for mosques across the kingdom to hold prayers Sunday for the victims, many of whom were buried Saturday amid the frenzy of rescue work nearby.
In France, home to many people with links to Morocco, towns and cities have offered more than 2 million euros ($2.1 million) in aid, and popular performers are rallying to collect donations. The Moroccan king ordered the opening of special bank accounts to allow donations to help those in need.
The epicenter of Friday’s quake was near the town of Ighil in Al Haouz Province, roughly 70 kilometers (44 miles) south of Marrakesh. Al Haouz is known for scenic villages and valleys tucked in the High Atlas Mountains.
About 45 kilometers (28 miles) northeast of the quake epicenter, fallen walls exposed the innards of damaged homes, and piles of rubble blocked alleys. In Moulay Brahim, a poor rural community of less than 3,000 people, many of the homes made of clay brick and cinderblock were no longer safe or no longer standing.
Devastation gripped each town along the High Atlas’s steep and winding switchbacks, with homes folding in on themselves and people crying as boys and helmet-clad police carried the dead through the streets.
”I was asleep when the earthquake struck. I could not escape because the roof fell on me. I was trapped. I was saved by my neighbors who cleared the rubble with their bare hands,” said Fatna Bechar in Moulay Brahim. “Now, I am living with them in their house because mine was completely destroyed.”
Hamid Idsalah, a 72-year-old mountain guide, said he and many others remained alive, but had little future to look forward to as they lack the financial means to rebound.
Some Marrakesh shop owners returned to work Sunday morning, after the king encouraged economic activities to resume nationwide and ordered plans to begin to reconstruct destroyed buildings.
For much of Saturday in historic Marrakech, people could be seen on state television clustering in the streets, afraid to go back inside buildings that might still be unstable.
The city’s famous Koutoubia Mosque, built in the 12th century, was damaged, but the extent was not immediately clear. The famous red walls that surround the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, were also damaged.
Police, emergency vehicles and people fleeing in shared taxis spent hours traversing unpaved roads through the High Atlas in stop-and-go traffic, often exiting their cars to help clear giant boulders from routes known to be rugged and difficult even before the earthquake.
“It felt like a bomb went off,” 34-year-old Mohamed Messi said.
The quake had a preliminary magnitude of 6.8 when it hit at 11:11 p.m., with shaking that lasted several seconds, the USGS said. The agency added that a magnitude 4.9 aftershock hit 19 minutes later. The collision of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates occurred at a relatively shallow depth, which makes a quake more dangerous.
It was the strongest earthquake in terms of magnitude to hit the North African country in more than 120 years, according to the USGS, which has records dating back to 1900.
But in 1960, a magnitude 5.8 temblor struck near the Moroccan city of Agadir and caused thousands of deaths. That quake prompted changes in construction rules in Morocco, but many buildings, especially rural homes, are not built to withstand such tremors.
In 2004, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake near the Mediterranean coastal city of Al Hoceima left more than 600 dead.
Friday’s quake was felt as far away as Portugal and Algeria, according to the Portuguese Institute for Sea and Atmosphere and Algeria’s Civil Defense agency, which oversees emergency response.