A 6.8-magnitude earthquake has hit Morocco killing at least 630 people, injuring more than 320, damaging buildings, and sending terrified residents fleeing their homes into the streets for safety.
Morocco’s state television reported the doubling of the death toll Saturday morning from overnight, citing the ministry of the interior. Of those injured, 51 were in a critical condition.
Residents of Marrakech, the nearest big city to the epicentre, said some buildings collapsed in the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Local television showed images of a fallen mosque minaret with rubble lying on smashed cars.
The earthquake hit shortly after 11pm local time (22:00 GMT) on Friday evening, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
The USGS estimates the epicentre of the quake occurred in the Atlas Mountains, some 75km (44 miles) from Marrakesh, the fourth largest city in the country.
Eid Al Tarzi, a professor of seismology in Jordan, told Al Jazeera “hundreds of aftershocks could happen”.
“People will need to stay away from the buildings that are not strong because they are prone to collapse. We expect the aftershocks could continue for three to four weeks,” he said.
Local media reported roads leading to the mountain region around the epicentre were jammed with vehicles and blocked with collapsed rocks, slowing rescue efforts.
Abderrahim Ait Daoud, the head of a town in the area, told the Moroccan news site 2M that several homes nearby had partly or totally collapsed, and electricity and roads were cut off in some places.
He also said authorities were working to clear roads in Al Haouz province to allow passage for ambulances and aid to populations affected. Large distances between mountain villages mean it will take time to learn the full extent of the damage, he added.
Moroccans posted videos showing buildings reduced to rubble and dust, and parts of the famous red walls that surround the old city in Marrakesh damaged.
Tourists and others posted videos of people screaming and evacuating restaurants in the city. Shocked residents in Marrakesh and Casablanca fled out of buildings and onto the streets.
One Marrakesh resident, Brahim Himmi, told Reuters news agency he spotted ambulances leaving the city’s historic old town. He also said building facades had been damaged as the earth shook.
While earthquakes in the region are “uncommon but not unexpected”, one of this magnitude has not been seen in the immediate area in more than 120 years.
“Since 1900, there have been no earthquakes M6 [magnitude 6] or larger within 500km of this earthquake, and only nine M5 [magnitude 5] and larger,” the USGS said on its website.
Most of those previous earthquakes occurred further to the east as well, the agency added.
Friday evening’s earthquake was a relatively shallow one, occurring at a depth of 18.5km (11.5 miles). The USGS explained “oblique-reverse faulting” in the Atlas Mountains was the cause of the quake.
The last major earthquake to strike Morocco occurred in 2004, killing more than 600 people. That temblor, dubbed the Al Hoceima earthquake, was positioned on an active plate boundary on the country’s northernmost coast, bordering the western Mediterranean Sea. It clocked in at a magnitude of 6.3.
An even larger quake struck neighbouring Algeria in 1980. Known as the El Asnam earthquake, the 7.3-magnitude event was the strongest seismic activity the region had seen in centuries. Also originating in the Atlas Mountain range, it levelled houses, leaving 300,000 people on the street and over 2,600 people dead.
Messages of support began to roll in from around the world on Saturday.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz posted condolences on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, currently hosting the Group of 20 summit of the world’s largest economies, wrote, “India is ready to offer all possible assistance to Morocco in this difficult time.”