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Associated Press

BORDJ MENAIEL, Algeria (AP) - Skip the border collie howled to say he smelled life under the debris and could not understand why no one dug to investigate. Neither could his Austrian handlers.

For international rescue teams, the drama played out in this earthquake-shattered town was all too familiar. Their most precious asset - time - had been squandered by bureaucratic delay and the digging equipment was needed more urgently elsewhere.

Specialists say that no matter how fast they react, crucial hours are always lost, not only to the inevitable fog of a disaster but also to local red tape, diplomatic snarls and turf battles.

With the death toll from the quake nearing 2,200 Sunday, anger grew as people in this and other stricken towns denounced the government for an inadequate response and a lack of relief supplies.

Even with United Nations coordination and some international accords, emergency relief is often an ad hoc scramble.

"You live with it and do the best you can," said Leif Andren, the Swedish Rescue Service veteran who made the painful call not to move his heavy digging gear to the Bordj Menaiel site found by the Austrian volunteers.

The Austrians' search dogs had barked signals indicating a missing man was still alive Saturday under a collapsed three-story building. The team asked for help to get him out.

Experts from Andren's squad responded, but their camera probes and listening gear detected nothing. Their own dogs also turned up no signs of life. "The Austrians aren't happy, but we must set priorities," Andren said.

Andreas Thurriedl, who runs a driving school in Salzburg when not leading his sniffer-dog team on rescue missions, reluctantly accepted the decision.

"I'm convinced that man was alive this morning," he said Saturday afternoon, "but maybe by now he is not. Who can say? A decision had to be made."

Late Saturday, 72 hours after the quake, foreign search teams began packing up to go home, leaving behind humanitarian workers to look after homeless survivors.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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