Hundreds Feared Trapped in Egypt Rockslide

Egyptians search for victims at site where a massive rock slide buried many dwellings at an Egyptian shanty town south of the capital Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008. The massive boulders smashed down onto the shantytown killing at least 18 people and injured 22. (AP Photo)
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CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Crowds search for victims of the rockslide, which buried a shanty town Saturday in Cairo.

more photos » At least eight boulders, some the size of small houses, peeled away from the towering Muqattam cliffs outside Cairo and buried 50 homes in the sprawling Manshiyet Nasr slum, one of the shantytowns ringing Africa's most populous city.

It was the latest disaster to stir public anger at a government accused by many of neglect. A lawmaker representing the area said that despite warnings that the cliff face could collapse, the government failed to deliver on promises to relocate residents.

The collapse occurred in the early morning, when most residents were still sleeping after waking earlier to eat before the daytime fast of Islam's holy month of Ramadan. Watch residents search through the rubble »

A security official said that 35 people were injured and many people are believed to be under the hundreds of tons of rock that fell. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

"My whole family is underneath the rock," Anwar Ragab sobbed as he watched a body being pulled from under the rock. "I don't know what to do. I can't do anything. I just want my children back."

One young boy pulled from the rubble, 6-year-old Mustafa Ibrahim, regained consciousness in a hospital, shouting, "Where is my mother? Where is my father?" His parents and three brothers were killed.

The pulverized remains of the town were covered by a thick layer of dust, and the scene was chaotic as men and women screamed in grief and blamed the government for a slow rescue operation. People dug at the debris, calling out the names of relatives and family members trapped below.

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Leila Mohammed Tawfeeq, 13, who lay in a hospital bed with a broken arm and face full of bruises, recalled being jolted awake by a sound like an earthquake. She cried out for her older brother, Ahmad, whom she remembers seeing nearby putting on his sandals.

"That was the last thing I saw," she said. Her brother is among the missing.

Slums like Manshiyet Nasr at the base of the cliffs are built by migrants from the countryside looking for work in Cairo, an overcrowded city of 17 million people that suffers from a severe housing shortage. Buildings on top of the cliffs and below are crudely built and lack basic services, contributing to the instability of the vast plateau.

"The reason the rocks keep falling is because there is no sewage system and their wastewater is eating away at the mountain," Hani Rifaat, a local journalist who has been following the issue, said from the site of the disaster.

Sewage could be seen pouring down from residential areas on top of the plateau, prompting fears of another collapse.

Resident Mohammed Hussein said contractors working to shore up the cliffs couldn't complete their work because the government hadn't resettled the community below. The slum is home to half a million people, according to official government figures.

A string of other recent disasters in Egypt has pointed to government neglect and incompetence, including the burning of parliament in August, the destruction of another Cairo slum by fire in 2007 and a ferry disaster that claimed 1,000 lives in 2006.

Helmeted rescue workers on the scene Saturday appeared to do little, and as night fell, no heavy equipment had been used to clear debris. A single bulldozer sat stranded because it couldn't move through the slum's narrow streets. Authorities planned to demolish some buildings to clear the way.

In their frustration, police and residents exchanged angry words.

After sundown, residents broke their fast for Ramadan amid the ruins, and most rescue efforts appeared to stop.

The government said that survivors would be transferred to new housing for the night and given all necessary aid.

"We are following the case step by step and providing the care and comfort for the residents," Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said in a statement. "We would like to remind people the danger of building informal housing in dangerous areas."

Haidar Baghdadi, the parliamentarian for the region, told Al-Jazeera news channel that residents were calling for help from under the rubble using cell phones.

The representative added that the area was known to be dangerous and that the residents were supposed to be resettled to government housing.

"We should have removed these rocks five years ago to protect the people underneath or moved the people," he said.

Rock slides periodically take place on the edges of the brittle limestone Muqattam hills. In 1994, 30 people were killed in another rock slide in the same area.