By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU
Associated Press Writer
ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) -- Hundreds of troops, engineers and social workers have converged on the desert town of Ghardaia to help with relief operations after a flash flood there killed 33, Algeria's Interior Ministry said Friday.
Torrential rains caused rivers in this usually arid region bordering the Sahara to overflow on Wednesday and Thursday, destroying hundreds of houses in the historic town and several neighboring oases.
In a statement late Friday, the Interior Ministry said that troops were securing the zone to avoid looting and helping to search for more potential victims.
Thousands of animals also drowned, and crops and food reserves were heavily depleted, the statement said. The military brought in two mobile bakeries to cook emergency bread rations and is helping rehouse survivors in public buildings, it said.
Some 400 tons of food, 1,000 tents and 200,000 blankets were being distributed to survivors, the official APS news agency said.
Some residents said rescue operations were conducted too slowly, and a local journalist said roughly 1,000 protesters gathered in Ghardaia's center Friday to demand more aid and additional equipment to search for victims.
Jamel Kechmad said speculation was rampant in the town that the death toll was much higher than officially reported. He spoke to The Associated Press by telephone.
Ghardaia, with a population of 100,000, is located in a long and narrow valley known as the M'zab about 370 miles south of the capital, Algiers. The M'zab is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, and lies on the edge of the Sahara, the world's largest desert.
The region is home to the Mozabite people, who practice a unique form of dissident Islam. The area saw violent clashes this year between locals who usually belong to the Berber ethnic minority and mainstream Sunni Muslims.
Both groups participated in Friday's protest, though they did not mingle, Kechmad said. Police officers and soldiers stood guard.
Thunderstorms can occasionally bring massive rains to the region, with engorged rivers then causing serious damage.
Residents said that during this week's rains, a local river rose by 26 feet, triggering the floods. Mud flowed chest-deep in some streets and carried cars away, video footage showed.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)