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Switzerland contributes to Algerian rescue efforts

Widespread destruction in Algiers

(Keystone)

Switzerland has given immediate aid to Algeria, where an earthquake on Wednesday night killed more than 1,600 people and left more than 7,000 injured.

A 90-strong Swiss rescue team arrived in Algiers on Thursday. Their mission is to support local rescuers trying to free those trapped under the rubble.

The Swiss government set up a crisis committee on Wednesday night after the extent of the catastrophe in northern Algeria became apparent.

The earthquake - Algeria's deadliest in years - struck the capital and nearby towns, destroying buildings and burying hundreds under rubble.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) dispatched elements of the Swiss Disaster Relief Unit to the region on Thursday.

The team includes search dogs, medical staff and other rescue specialists.

"The main operation is the Humanitarian Aid Unit and they will be operational on the field on Friday," Jean-Philippe Jutzi, spokesman for the SDC, told swissinfo.

"They are mainly specialist troops for digging people out from underneath ruins, doctors and paramedics, plus lots of different rescue specialists."

The unit is made available by the Swiss government to support international organisations in disaster areas. It comprises a militia corps of 700 people with different knowledge and abilities who are ready for duty at any time.

Major shocks

Hundreds of buildings have been damaged, including the Swiss ambassador's residence.

The SDC said it was in constant contact with the Swiss embassy in Algiers.

The foreign ministry in Bern reported that it did not yet have information concerning 150 Swiss citizens resident in the North African country because telephone lines were down.

Stefan Wiemer of the Swiss Seismological Service said that earthquakes were not uncommon in Algeria. Despite that, buildings were not always constructed to withstand major shocks.

The problems were compounded by the high population density in Algiers.

"It's a mixture of bad building... and a relatively large earthquake in the vicinity of a heavily populated area," Wiemer told swissinfo.

"Algeria has had a number of earthquakes - the last one in 1980 killed a lot more people, so it's a dangerous area."

Spate of earthquakes

The Algerian quake is the latest in a series of tremors affecting a number of countries - Switzerland included - since the start of the year.

The strongest of these were in China, Turkey, Democratic Republic of Congo and Iran.

However, Wiemer told swissinfo that it was not possible to link the earthquakes.

"Earthquakes happen over these large distances at random. They do interact, but over short distances, and not over these large distances."

Wiemer said that while some areas are known to be more affected by earthquakes, predicting when tremors will occur is almost impossible.

The seismologist said that although Switzerland experiences occasional minor tremors, an earthquake measuring six on the Richter scale occurs only once in 100 years.

"And we have really big ones - like the Basel earthquake - maybe every 1,000 years or so," explained Wiemer.

"We have considerable risk in some areas, specifically the Basel area, Valais and also eastern Switzerland."

swissinfo with agencies

earthquakes

Recent earthquakes around the world:

May 1, 2003 - Big earthquake in the southeastern part of Turkey leaves 167 dead and more than 1,000 injured.

April 29, 2003 - Small earthquake in Central Valais (Switzerland). No damage. Measures 3.9 on the Richter scale.

March 22, 2003 - Baden-Wuertemburg (Germany)experiences most powerful earthquake in in the last 25 years. No damage. Strength 4.4 on the Richter scale.

March 21, 2003 - Big earthquake east of the Democratic Republic of Congo - also felt in western Rwanda and Tanzania.

March 24, 2003 - Big earthquake in China leaves 350 dead and 10,000 homeless. Biggest aftershock measures 5.7 on the Richter scale.

February 22, 2003 - Earthquake in Switzerland. Considerable damage to buildings. Measures 5.5 on the Richter scale.

January 21, 2003 - Big earthquake in Mexico leaves 29 dead and over 300 injured. Measures 7.6 on the Richter scale.

January 11, 2003 - Earthquake in Iran. Some 650 houses destroyed in 22 villages. Measures 5 on the Richter scale.

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