Mourning Albania races against time to find earthquake survivors

Thumanë (Albania) (AFP) –


Emergency workers in Albania Wednesday pulled dusty bodies from the ruins of buildings gutted by a violent earthquake and searched desperately for survivors as the death toll reached almost 30 with hundreds injured.

Tirana declared a state of emergency in the areas hardest-hit by Tuesday's pre-dawn 6.4 magnitude earthquake: the coastal city of Durres and the town of Thumane, where victims were trapped by toppled buildings.

With the help of dogs and more than 200 experts flown in from across Europe, rescuers raced against time to locate survivors of the most powerful earthquake in the country in decades.

Early Wednesday in Thumane, tormented relatives wept as search teams retrieved the remains of a married couple, Pellumb and Celike Greku, from one of the buildings torn down by the force of the earthquake.

Their son Saimir was rescued alive from the rubble Tuesday night but later died in hospital, according to relatives and neighbours.

"Terrible, terrible," an elderly woman dressed in black shouted as the bodies were carried away, tearing at her hair.

Another local, 60-year-old Valbona Cupi, said Saimir had been visiting his parents from abroad when the earthquake struck before dawn on Tuesday.

"They went to heaven together, they were very honest and poor people," she said in tears.

Nearby, rescue teams were combing another crumbled building in hopes of reaching a young woman they believed may still be alive after the more than 24-hour ordeal.

Earlier in the day they pulled out the body of a young man.

- Hope lingers -

By Wednesday morning, the official death toll was up to 28 while 45 people had been rescued, the defence ministry said.

There was no estimate on how many people remained missing.

Some 650 people have been treated for injuries, mostly minor, according to Albania's health ministry.

In seaside Durres, where more than 27 buildings were badly damaged, emergency workers and relatives searched for a family of six -- two parents and four children -- whose home was flattened by the earthquake.

"Hope is the last thing that dies," said Asije, 40, a close relative of the Lala family who had come to the port city from Albania's poor north in search of a better life.

Another relative, Hasan Lala, was working with rescuers who used pickaxes, shovels and their hands to clear debris and move slabs on concrete. They continued through the night with headlamps and mobile phones.

"The rescue operation is very difficult because you can't use heavy machinery, you have to work with your hands," he said, as distraught neighbours watched from the house next door.

"The priority is to save people's lives," said Prime Minister Edi Rama, who declared Wednesday a national day of mourning.

Festivities planned for Albania's Independence Day celebrations on November 28 and 29 have been cancelled.

In solidarity, neighbouring Kosovo, whose population is mostly ethnic Albanian, also declared Wednesday a day of mourning.

Two Kosovar brothers, Shemsedin and Isa Abazi, were among the dead, according to Pristina.

The pair was in Durres for work when their hotel collapsed, Kosovo's ambassador to Tirana said on television.

- Aftershocks -

The powerful quake, which struck just before 4:00am (0300 GMT) on Tuesday, was the strongest to jolt Albania in decades.

Thousands of people spent the night in tents in Thumane and in the football stadium in Durres.

In neighbouring Greece, a strong 6.1-magnitude underwater earthquake shook the island of Crete on Wednesday morning.

Earthquakes are common in the Balkans due to the movements two large tectonic plates -- the African and Eurasian -- and the smaller Adriatic micro-plate.