MEKNES, Morocco (AP) – Moroccan King Mohammed VI on Saturday ordered experts to check the safety of the country’s historic mosques as the death toll from the collapse of a centuries-old minaret rose to 41 people, the official news agency said.
The minaret fell onto a crowded mosque during prayers Friday in the city of Meknes, a UNESCO heritage site and a walled city that is a maze of winding narrow streets. Some 75 people were injured, 17 of whom are still hospitalized, the North African nation’s official MAP news agency said.
A day after the accident, a police officer with a sniffer dog patrolled the site, but the main search operations appeared to have to have wrapped up. The falling tower toppled onto about three-quarters of the mosque, leaving behinds piles of rubble and sand.
Family members carried victims’ bodies through the streets en route to burials Saturday. Thousands of people, many sobbing, marched to a local cemetery.
Officials blamed the accident on heavy rain that weakened the minaret at the Bab Berdieyinne Mosque, according to an official Interior Ministry release.
Journalists were allowed to enter the part of the building that had not collapsed. Amid the rubble were dozens of shoes, apparently left behind by worshippers scrambling to escape.
The old town of Meknes, 120 kilometers (62 miles) east of the capital Rabat, is a pedestrian zone with narrow streets, which made rescue efforts more difficult. The king asked officials to carry out “urgent studies” of historic mosques nationwide to check their safety, MAP said. Local officials put together teams including engineers and experts to study them, it said.
Abdeslam Bouchikhi, a local official with the religious affairs ministry, said King Mohammed VI had visited the mosque and prayed there several years ago. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Morocco’s former colonial ruler, was among those who sent condolences to the king.
The king said after the collapse that the mosque, built under Sultan Moulay Ismail, who ruled in the 17th and 18th centuries and made Meknes his capital, would be rebuilt.