By Abdelmalek Touati
ALGIERS (Reuters) - The official death toll in a strong earthquake that rocked western Algeria rose to 28 people on Thursday as rescue workers sifted through the rubble of several collapsed historic buildings.
A statement carried by state-run radio said at least 181 people were injured after the quake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale shook several western provinces of the North African country at 6:37 p.m. on Wednesday.
Officials and medical sources said most of the casualties were in Ain Temouchant, a town with a population of 56,000, some 45 miles west of the Mediterranean city of Oran.
A doctor at Ain Temouchant hospital told Reuters earlier: ''The collapse of some buildings dating back to the 19th century in the town (Ain Temouchant) killed so far 28 people and wounded 200 others.''
State radio said the earthquake's epicenter was in Tissalat mountains where Ain Temouchant is located.
''I saw several collapsed buildings, including three schools which were completely demolished,'' said schoolteacher Amina Kali. ''Scores of families have been left homeless and spent the night outside in freezing temperatures.''
Kali said she heard that many prisoners escaped after part of their prison building collapsed.
Energy Facilities Safe
Energy officials said the quake caused no damage to a major oil and gas export terminal and refinery at Arzew, just a few km (miles) east of Oran.
''We've just completed thorough checks on the refinery and the export terminal and there has been no damage. Everything is normal,'' the official from Arzew refinery said.
Another official said: ''We felt the tremor, but all facilities are working as normal. We've had no interruption and nothing to worry about.''
Arzew, one of Algeria's main two export terminals, also has a refinery with a processing capacity of 60,000 barrels a day.
An official statement broadcast on state radio said the government sent the ministers of interior and health to supervise relief operations in areas hit by the quake.
In neighboring Morocco, the official MAP news agency reported that a quake measuring 5.2 degrees hit the northeastern Moroccan city of Oujda, a few miles from the Algerian border. It said there were no reports of casualties or damage.
MAP added that Moroccan King Mohammed sent his condolences to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and offered help in rescue efforts.
Algeria's western region has been hit by several earthquakes in the past, the deadliest of which was in 1980 when at least 2,590 people were killed in an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale.
The quake devastated the Algerian town of El Asnam, leaving 330,000 people homeless. The town was subsequently rebuilt and renamed Chlef.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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