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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Rescuers reach Moroccan villages in mountains as aid trickles in

Tourists walking past a damaged building in the old quarters of Marrakesh, Morocco, on Sunday.

By Vivian Yee and Aida Alami

Rescuers have begun to reach some remote mountain villages in Morocco that were hardest hit by the strongest earthquake in the area in more than a century, but on Monday, three days after the disaster, many more settlements were still waiting for assistance.

Some roads in the Atlas Mountains near the ancient city of Marrakech remained blocked by landslides after Friday’s earthquake, which had a magnitude of at least 6.8 and killed at least 2,497 people.

In the first remarks to come directly from a senior official, government spokesperson Mustapha Baitas appeared to push back on criticism that the response had been slow and uncoordinated, with many survivors left to fend for themselves. In a video published on social media channels late Sunday, Baitas said Moroccan authorities had mounted “swift and effective” search, rescue and recovery operations.

Aid appeared to be flowing into some remote areas on Monday. In the town of Amizmiz at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains in the province of Al Haouz, more ambulances and uniformed emergency personnel were on the streets than on Sunday, and more survivors appeared to be sheltering in disaster relief tents rather than in makeshift structures.

International rescue teams from Britain and Spain have arrived in Morocco, and more are on their way. Though dozens of countries, including the United States, have offered assistance, the Moroccan government had only officially accepted aid from Britain, Spain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, although small teams of volunteer rescue workers from around the world have started to trickle in.

Here’s what you need to know:

— The death toll from the earthquake rose to 2,497, according to new figures from the Interior Ministry released Monday. Most of those killed were in the province of Al Haouz, the ministry said.

— Many survivors were still without power and phone service, fueling criticism on social media about the government’s response. In some villages, where homes are made of mud bricks, as many as half of the houses were flattened. Many Moroccans had stepped in to fill in the gaps because aid was slow to arrive.

— France’s foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, denied that Morocco was refusing French aid because of frosty diplomatic relations between the two countries, and said it was up to the Moroccan authorities to decide the timing and nature of any foreign assistance.

— On Sunday, villages across the Atlas Mountains — even those just an hour or two from Marrakech, a major city — were getting little or no official help. Ambulances were a rare sight, with most injured people who had been pulled from the wreckage being driven to Marrakech hospitals by private car or motorcycle, if they made it at all.

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