Search in Albania quake reduced, death toll at 49
TIRANA – The operation to find survivors and recover bodies from Albania's deadly earthquake was winding down Friday, with rescue crews limiting their efforts to a collapsed beachfront hotel in the port town of Durres as the death toll climbed to 49.
Albanian, Serb and Montenegrin rescue crews were working through the ruins of the hotel, where one person was still believed to be missing, Defense Ministry spokeswoman Albana Qehajaj said.
Sniffer dogs have signaled a person’s presence under the rubble.
Neighboring countries and European Union nations rushed in rescue crews and specialized equipment hours after the quake struck.
About 2,000 people were injured in Tuesday’s 6.4-magnitude pre-dawn quake, said Health Minister Ogerta Manastirliu, after information was collected from hospitals, small health centers, homes and those now staying in tents.
Two seriously ill persons were taken to Italy for further treatment.
The most seriously affected areas were Durres, 33 kilometers (20 miles) west of the capital, Tirana, and the nearby town of Thumane. The search operation in Thumane, whose mosque was so badly damaged that believers prayed outside, ended Wednesday.
Mourners were preparing to bury some of the victims of the earthquake in a series of funerals on Friday. Hundreds of Thumane residents took part in funeral ceremonies for eight people killed in the quake, six from one family and two from another.
Prime Minister Edi Rama and his deputy, Erion Brace, also attended.
President Ilir Meta visited Durres with Kosovo’s outgoing Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj. Albania’s main opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha also has been visiting the quake-hit sites, as the catastrophe appeared to at least temporarily sideline political differences in the ever-squabbling country.
The earthquake struck as people slept, and nearly all of those killed were trapped when their apartment buildings or hotels they were staying in collapsed. Hundreds of aftershocks, with at least three of magnitudes greater than 5, have rattled the country and complicated rescue efforts.
Apart from the buildings that collapsed, Rama said preliminary figures showed about 700 buildings in Durres and more than 235 in Tirana were seriously damaged.
"Now comes the hard time for us, with nonstop work to bring life back to normal,” said Rama, adding that he had appealed for international help in reconstruction efforts. He has vowed to re-house all those left homeless "in better living conditions than before the quake," within a year.
The prime minister said that the first donations for reconstruction totaled about 10 million euros ($11 million).
Greece said it was responding to Rama’s appeal by sending a specialized team of 16 engineers from the country’s natural disaster relief agency to help in reconstruction on Friday. The team was to fly to Albania on a military plane that would in turn take back two teams of Greek disaster response firefighters that have been working in search-and-rescue efforts since Tuesday afternoon.
“The priority now is shelter, food and care for any homeless citizen,” said Albanian Defense Minister Olta Xhacka, adding that engineers have begun assessing damaged homes. Preliminary estimates put the number of people left homeless by the quake at 4,000.
“No one will remain in the street,” she said.
About 500 people spent a third night in tents in Thumane, while a total of about 2,000 people from Durres and Thumane were moved to temporary accommodation in hotels, schools and sports halls.
In a sign of brotherhood, many homeless have been taken to neighboring Kosovo, where a vast majority of the people are ethnic Albanians.
During Kosovo’s 1998-99 war, hundreds of thousands from Kosovo were sheltered in Albania.
The European Union pledged further assistance to assess Albania’s needs and priorities, adding that it had started to coordinate with member states, other countries and international organizations on the emergency response.
Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed.
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