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Death toll mounts after buildings collapse in French city of Marseille

Loïc Aedo, BMPM, SM Aedo, AFP | French rescue workers search for survivors amid the wreckage of a building collapse in the southern French city of Marseille on November 5, 2018.

A sixth body was found Wednesday in the wreckage of two dilapidated buildings that collapsed in the French city of Marseille, where furious residents have accused authorities of ignoring warnings about the state of housing for the underprivileged.

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Rescuers worked throughout the night searching for survivors in the wake of the deadly collapse on Monday morning of the two dilapidated apartment blocks not far from the centre of the Mediterranean port city.

A third adjoining building also partially collapsed on Monday night.

Prosecutors said the bodies were found separately under the 15-metre (50-foot) pile of rubble on Rue d'Aubagne, a narrow shopping street which now resembles the scene of an earthquake.

Rescuers formed a human chain to remove the debris, stone by stone.

The two other apartment blocks, which were in such a bad state that they had been condemned, were boarded up and in theory unoccupied.

Google Maps images taken in recent months showed the collapsed buildings had large visible cracks in their facades.

People had been living in nine of the 10 apartments at number 65, while a shop occupied the ground floor.

Growing anger at tragedy

Anger is mounting among residents of the Mediterranean port city, with more feared dead.

Residents said Tuesday that the structural risks of the buildings and others like them were widely known, but that city officials did little when alerted.

"Everybody knew about the problems with the two collapsed buildings," said Patrick Lacoste, a spokesman for a local housing action group.

"People died for nothing, even though we knew."

"It's hell here, they know it that it's crap and now people die for nothing," said local resident Toufik Ben Rhouma. The disaster, he added, was "100 percent the fault of city hall".

“It’s unthinkable that such things happen in our time,” said Christian Gouverneur, who lives in a flat just across the road from the tragic site.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told lawmakers in Paris that he had ordered a "building by building" audit before an "ambitious programme for ensuring safe conditions" along with Marseille authorities.

"Nearly 6,000 properties have been identified as at risk" in the city, he said, representing some 44,000 lodgings in lower-class neighbourhoods, calling the situation "unacceptable".

'It could've been me'

A young bar waiter watched the scene with tears in his eyes, anxious for news of an Italian woman who lived in the building.

"She was a great girl, she used to come and study at the bar," he said, without giving his name.

Abdou Ali, 34, came in search of his mother after she did not come to collect her youngest son from school on Monday afternoon.

I haven't had any news," he said, wandering among the rescuers.

Sophie Dorbeaux meanwhile told AFP she had left the block on Sunday night to stay with her parents because the building's structural problems meant her door, like several others, was not opening or closing properly.

"The walls had been moving for several weeks and cracks had appeared," the 25-year-old philosophy student said.

"It could have been me," she added, visibly shaken.

Political storm over housing

Marseille city authorities, who have evacuated and rehoused 100 residents from nearby buildings as a precaution, believe heavy rain may have contributed to the buildings' collapsing.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Marseille had "the solidarity of the nation" as rescuers worked into the darkness.

But the incident -- rare in a major Western city -- has already sparked a political row over the quality of housing available to Marseille's poorest residents.

The neighbourhood is home to many buildings in a similarly poor condition, some of them run by slum landlords.

"It's the homes of the poor that are falling down, and that's not a coincidence," said local lawmaker Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the leftwing France Unbowed party.

Marseille authorities began a vast upgrade plan for the city centre in 2011.

But a 2015 government report said about 100,000 Marseille residents were living in housing that was dangerous to their health or security.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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