A statement carried by state-run radio said at least 181 people were injured after the quake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale shook several western provinces of the North African country Wednesday evening.
Officials and medical sources said most of the casualties were close to the quake's epicenter in the Tissalat Mountains. Ain Temouchant, a town about 45 miles west of the Mediterranean city of Oran, bore the brunt of the quake.
"I saw several collapsed buildings, including three schools which were completely demolished," said schoolteacher Amina Kali. "Scores of families have been left homeless and spent the night outside in freezing temperatures."
Three working-class districts in Ain Temouchent bore the brunt of the destruction, as older, dilapidated buildings came tumbling down. Phone lines were damaged, and electricity service disrupted.
French television showed frightened residents huddling in blankets close to collapsed buildings.
Kali said she heard that many prisoners escaped after part of their prison building collapsed.
Energy officials said the quake caused no damage to a major oil and gas export terminal and refinery at Arzew, just a few miles outside Oran.
An official from Arzew refinery said: "We felt the tremor, but all facilities are working as normal. We've had no interruption and nothing to worry about."
An official statement broadcast on state radio said the government sent the ministers of interior and health to supervise relief operations in areas hit by the quake.
Neighboring Morocco's official MAP news agency said that Moroccan King Mohammed offered help in rescue efforts.
Algeria's western region has been hit by several earthquakes in the past, the deadliest of which was in 1980 when at least 2,590 people were killed in an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale.
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