Algerian quake death toll nears 2,200

The death toll from a devastating earthquake in northern Algeria neared 2,200 today.

The death toll from a devastating earthquake in northern Algeria neared 2,200 today.

Many Algerians blamed the government for the high death toll and shortages of food and water after the 6.8-magnitude quake flattened villages east of Algiers on Wednesday. The Interior Ministry said today that at least 2,162 people were killed and 8,965 injured.

The death toll was expected to rise as bodies were pulled from the rubble and Hakim Mohand, of the Algerian civil protection unit, said it could reach 3,000.

The anger came as Japanese rescue workers said they pulled a survivor – a 21-year-old waiter – from the rubble of a hotel on the Mediterranean coast at midnight on Friday.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika tried to tour the quake-ravaged town of Boumerdes yesterday, but angry crowds harangued him with shouts of “pouvoir assassin!” – a common slogan roughly translated as “the authorities - killers.”

Bouteflika cut his visit short. Police fought to hold back the crowd as he drove away, with many people throwing chunks of rubble and other objects at his car and some kicking the cars in his motorcade.

The president faced similar anger later in the day in Lakhdaria, where one elderly protester loudly accused the government of misappropriating international aid meant for quake victims.

He later shrugged off the protests, calling them ”testimony to the vitality of Algerian youth.”

The abuse directed at Bouteflika and other officials was a bold display of criticism against a military-backed government known to clamp down on dissent.

Amid the strife and destruction, Japanese aid workers – after 34 hours of digging through the wrecked Adim Beach Resort at Zemmouri – rescued a man who somehow had escaped injury.

“It was almost a miracle. He was unscathed,” said Toshimitsu Ishigure, director of the Japanese Overseas Disaster Assistance. “He was able to breathe because he had a half-foot of space from a slab lying on top.”

Hope of finding further survivors, however, was evaporating. Ishigure said rescues became far less likely more than 72 hours after a quake, and British officials said Saturday they soon would withdraw rescue workers and replace them with relief and recovery experts.

The threat of disease was rising, they said, especially with temperatures rising to almost 40C (104F).

“Other risks such as infection must be tackled,” Willie McMartin of Britain’s International Rescue Corps said. “There is an immediate need for disinfectant to be sprayed.”

People across the quake zone accused the government of inadequately providing food, medicine and blankets. Some said government failure to rush mechanical diggers to affected areas delayed rescues and contributed to the death toll.

In Bordj Menaiel, a town of 20,000 built largely by Algeria’s former French colonial rulers, residents claimed the government had done nothing to help them.

They said the lack of necessities was exacerbating tensions between the ethnic Berbers who live here and Algeria’s Arab-run government.

A 45-year-old entrepreneur who would only give his name as Rabah said he was among several hundred protesters when Interior Minister Nourredine Yazid Zerhouni toured the town Friday.

“He told us the damage could have been worse, that we should be patient. But how can we be patient when there are people, families under the rubble?” he said. “I am ready to go to prison, but I will not be ruled by this inhumane government.”

Another man who would only identify himself as Rachid, a 39-year-old road building inspector, said the only heavy equipment they had was provided by private contractors.

“We are ready for war if need be,” he said, almost shouting, throwing his fists into the air. Others shared his anger, denouncing the government in the harshest words.

“They can go to hell!” shouted one man.

But Bordj Menaiel’s mayor, Abdallah Amara, insisted the crisis was nearly under control.

“The situation has almost been stabilised,” he said from inside his office, where police kept people at a distance by erecting barriers.

He said authorities gave tents to the homeless, and other services were being restored.

Algerian civil protection units and volunteers, wearing white face masks, were still searching the rubble for survivors.

Weary health officials said they had done all they could to stave off any more deaths.

“I have slept less than four hours since it happened – we all have,” said Dr. Mohand Amrar, who heads Bordj Menaiel’s hospital. “But there was an extraordinary solidarity, Algeria came together.”

Amrar said some 900 people had been treated at the hospital by yesterday. Some were treated on the spot while those requiring surgery had to be taken to other clinics. He put the town’s death toll at 213.

“We did the best we could given the circumstances, I think we did a good job,” he said in a hospital courtyard stained with blood.

In nearby Ain Taya, officials said the quake added another source of woe for a country suffering from a decade-long insurgency and ethnic strife between Berbers and Arabs.

“This country was in crisis long before the earthquake ever hit,” said one young surgeon who stood outside Ain Taya hospital with a group of doctors and nurses, and spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Now that I have time to think about it, it really seems like we were left alone to deal with this catastrophe.”

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