Deadly rock slide in Egypt

September 7, 2008 8:28:20 AM PDT
Egyptian police on Sunday moved shantytown residents from the site of a rock slide that killed at least 31 and left countless more buried, after concerns that more rocks could tumble from the unstable cliffs overhead. Police also forced journalists to leave the area. Heavy machinery had yet to tackle the massive slabs of rock, some the size of apartment buildings, that split away from the Muqattam cliffs early Saturday, crushing the shantytown below.

A security official said 31 bodies had been pulled from the rubble and 46 people had been treated at hospitals, but that many other people remained buried. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The government said it hopes to evacuate the entire area because of fears that more of the limestone cliffs that tower above the Manshiyet Nasr slum might tumble down. They also plan to demolish more local houses to access the area with heavy machinery.

It was not clear why officials had not immediately evacuated remaining residents after the initial rock slide early Saturday.

But opposition and independent papers were sharply critical Sunday about the government's slow handling of the relief operation.

As they moved residents from the scene Sunday, police occasionally jostled with journalists at the scene, pushing a few and ordering them from the scene.

The densely populated shantytown sits among unstable cliffs, bordered by a railroad track that has made it difficult to get heavy recovery machinery into the area. More than 24 hours after the incident, rescue operations were still being carried out largely by hand and by residents.

Aboul-Ela Amin Mohammed, the head of the earthquake department at the National Research Institute for Astronomy and Geophysics, said the entire plateau is in danger of further collapse.

"It is not the first time or the last time," he told The Associated Press. "The area is full of densely packed informal housing with no central sewer system. ... When the sewage touches the fragile surface of the limestone, it changes its consistency into a flour-like paste."

Similar disasters happened in 1994 and 2002, and just in recent months residents had been complaining about instability in the area.

"We complained several times, and we asked the local council for new housing and they said it was not our responsibility, go to the governor, and so we went to the governor's office and they said it's not our responsibility, go to the city council," said Mustafa Mahmoud Sayyed, a five-year resident of the slum.

Sayyed's house, near the edge of the cliff is now riddled with cracks and he sleeps at night in the local mosque.

Mahmoud Samir, a construction worker from the slum, said many in the neighborhood had long expected something like the rock slide to happen because of visible cracks in the cliffs.

"We are afraid to sleep inside, but what can we do if we have no alternative?" he asked.

Like other residents, Mahmoud said he had been told that new apartments in a safer area had long been ready for the residents. But he said he thought corruption and incompetence by local officials had prevented any relocation.

Just 10 minutes walk from the shattered slum is the Susan Mubarak housing complex featuring brand new apartment complexes with electricity and running water. The local baker said only 200 families live in the vast complex, which is largely empty.

Haidar Baghdadi, the parliamentary representative of the area, told AP that 388 apartments from this complex would be made available within 48 hours to those who lost their homes.

"The local council is gathering the names of residents to compensate them with these other apartments," he said. Most residents interviewed Sunday, however, said they had yet to be approached.

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.