A powerful earthquake struck Morocco on Friday night, killing more than 600 people in the High Atlas region near the medieval city of Marrakech.
Morocco’s interior ministry on Saturday morning announced a preliminary death toll of 632 with 329 injured. It added that the earthquake, which struck shortly after 11pm, affected the provinces of Al Haouz, Ouarzazate, Marrakech, Azilal, Chichaoua and Taroudant. The tremors were felt as far as Rabat and Casablanca on the Atlantic coast, where some residents fled their homes and spent the night on the streets.
An official told Reuters that most of the dead were in remote mountain villages in the High Atlas in central Morocco. Landslides triggered by the earthquake have impeded rescuers’ access to some villages. Authorities in Marrakech have called on residents to donate blood.
The earthquake, which Morocco’s geophysical centre said struck in the Ighil area of the High Atlas with a magnitude of 7.2, was the most powerful to have hit the country since a 2004 tremor in al Hoceima in the northern Rif mountains killed 600 people. The US Geological Survey put the latest quake’s magnitude at 6.8.
Video footage showed rubble covering cars in a street in the old town of Marrakech where buildings and the minaret from a mosque had collapsed. Hundreds of locals and tourists fled their hotels and homes in fear of aftershocks and have gathered in the city’s famed Jemaa al-Fnaa square.
The old city centre, with its markets, traditional houses, museums and mosques, is a Unesco World Heritage site. Local reports say a section of the medieval city wall surrounding the centre had cracked.
Montasir Itri, a resident of the mountain village of Asni near the epicentre, told Reuters that many houses there were damaged. “Our neighbours are under the rubble,” he added.
Beyond the destruction and loss of life, authorities will be worried about the earthquake’s impact on tourism. Marrakech is a popular travel destination and the number of visitors is expected to surpass pre-Covid levels this year. According to the tourism ministry, Morocco was on track to attract a record 14mn visitors in 2023.