ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — A powerful earthquake shook the Algerian capital region Wednesday night, killing at least 538 people and injuring more than 4,600, the state-run news agency said.
The report quoted the Interior Ministry.
Rescuers feared families were buried in the wreckage as apartment building walls collapsed, trees crushed cars and weeping survivors walked amid debris.
"This is a misfortune that has struck the Algerian people," Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said on television.
The Interior Ministry was quoted by the APS news agency as saying the death toll could rise as rescuers find more people buried in rubble. It said 4,637 were injured.
The quake was deadliest in towns in the vicinity of Thenia, near the quake epicenter. Thenia is about 40 miles east of Algiers, the capital of this North African nation.
The prime minister said whole families may be buried under collapsed homes and so the initial death toll may be "unfortunately partial."
The quake hit about 7:45 p.m., cutting electricity in some neighborhoods of Algiers and causing panic throughout the city. About 10 aftershocks rippled through the area in the hours that followed.
The U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors quakes around the world, said the temblor had a preliminary magnitude of 6.7. Algerian officials put it much lower at 5.2. The cause of the discrepancy wasn't immediately clear.
The state-run APS agency said most of the deaths occurred near the epicenter, including 261 in Boumerdes, about six miles from the epicenter.
Numerous towns throughout the Boumerdes district were hard hit by the quake, and residents of the region were swarming to area hospitals with injuries or to seek news of loved ones.
In Algiers, several buildings collapsed. People thronged the streets, preferring to be outdoors for fear of another temblor.
Two more deaths were counted in the Berber capital of Tizi Ouzou, and one more in Bouira, both further east.
"I saw the earth tremble. I saw people jump from the window of the hotel," Icham Mouiss of Boumerdes told French television station LCI.
Interior Minister Nouredine Yazid Zerhouni traveled to Thenia and Boumerdes. A call for blood donors was issued. Medical personnel and employees of Sonelgaz, the state company that supplies electricity, were asked to pitch in and help.
A hospital in the town of Baghlia was seriously damaged by the quake and numerous roofs in towns around the epicenter caved in, the Interior Ministry said.
In Algiers, cracks appeared in a number of buildings. LCI showed aerial footage of a stairwell in one building that had crumbled to the ground. Some schools were opened to take in people whose homes were unsafe.
Butch Kinerney, spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey, called it a shallow earthquake that was capable of causing "significant damage and injuries."
He said that in 1980, hundreds of people were killed in a magnitude 7.7 quake in the same region. "This is the largest since then," Kinerney said.
The earthquake was the latest tragedy to visit this North African nation, where an Islamic insurgency has left some 120,000 people dead over more than a decade.
In November 2001, more than 700 people were killed in flooding around the capital, with most of the deaths in Bab el-Oued.
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