18 000 dead in earthquake 'hell'

Caked in thick grey dust and using only candlelight and the cries of the injured as their guide, tens of thousands of rescuers continued a desperate effort on Saturday night to save thousands of people buried in rubble after a huge earthquake flattened towns and villages across Pakistan and northern India.

The quake, at 8,50am local time (3.50am GMT), was of a magnitude of 7,6 on the Richter scale and wiped out entire villages in the forest-clad mountains in Pakistani Kashmir, near the Indian border, about 95km north-east of Islamabad.

Hundreds of children were killed when their schools collapsed, and hundreds of Pakistani troops are believed dead.

“Three hundred and fifty children have been killed in a school in Mansehra district and 50 were killed in another school in the same district,” said provincial police chief Riffat Pashar.

“I know of whole families being wiped out—children, parents gone,” said Chaudhry Muhammad Saeed, chief executive of the Azad Group, based in Pakistani Kashmir.

Saeed said the spate of heavy rains in Kashmir would make it more difficult for relief teams to reach the affected areas.

Officials in the region, which straddles the Pakistan-Indian border, said the death toll was rising by the hour. Pakistan said on Sunday over 18 000 people had been killed and 41 000 wounded.

Military spokesperson Major General Shaukat Sultan told Agence France Presse:“It is the biggest ever disaster in the history of Pakistan,” and appealed for massive international aid.

The earthquake has prompted deep anguish among Britain’s Pakistani community. On Saturday night phone lines were jammed as thousands of Pakistani Britons sought news of loved ones.

Screams across Srinagar

As the earthquake struck, screams were heard across Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, as people fled homes, shops and offices fearing they would be buried under rubble.
On the streets, men spontaneously started reading out verses from the Koran and women beat their chests in a traditional display of grief.

“Thanks to Allah, today is Saturday. Had it been Friday many would have died of heart attacks,” said Aminbin Khaliq, a shopkeeper. Muslims widely believe that the day of resurrection will come on a Friday.

Many Kunzru residents sat in the open fields waiting for relief material to reach them. Most of the villagers had not eaten all day because they were observing a ritual fast during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.

On the Indian side of Kashmir, police said the earthquake had killed more than 300 people and injured hundreds more. Half of the deaths were in Uri, the last big town on the road connecting the two sides of the violence-scarred region. The dead included 15 soldiers, some in bunkers close to the military ceasefire line between India and Pakistan.

But it was on the Pakistani side of the border that the death toll was highest. “It is becoming clear that the most affected area is Pakistan-administered Kashmir, where five out of seven divisions are severely affected,” said Raphael Sindaye, Oxfam’s humanitarian response co-ordinator in Islamabad.

He warned the region’s problems were only just beginning. “Winter is drawing in and night-time temperatures are already dropping. Winterised tents and blankets will be urgently needed.”

On Saturday night two of Kashmir’s main roads were closed because of landslides triggered by the earthquake, forcing aid agencies to fly relief material into some of the worst-hit areas.

For many in the aftermath of the disaster, described by the United States Meteorological Department as the worst to hit the region in decades, the efforts of rescuers and the military to pull them out of the wreckage was already too late.

In Abbotabad, north of Islamabad, dozens of injured victims and other patients, some hooked to intravenous drips, lay on the lawn of the city hospital after officials said aftershocks made it unsafe to stay inside.

In Uri and Baramulla, the worst affected towns in Indian Kashmir, survivors told how people formed rescue teams. Many complained it took hours for heavy lifting gear to arrive. Poor building standards were highlighted by many as responsible for the collapses. “Construction is rubbish in India. The builders use more sand than cement,” said one rescuer.

Television pictures from Uri showed mangled piles of masonry and twisted metal and the bloodied body of a small child. .

“It was like hell,” said Nauman Ali, who lived on the top floor of a 10-storey residence in Islamabad which was reduced to rubble. A man named Rehmatullah, who lived nearby, said: “I rushed down, and for some time you could not see anything because of the dust. Then we began to look for people in the rubble. We pulled out one man by cutting off his legs.”

Throughout the day, grieving relatives and anxious friends came to search for their loved ones. People watched hopefully as ambulances left the scene with sirens blaring.

International assistance

Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, but a peace process is under way and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh immediately reached out to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to offer help.

“While parts of India have also suffered from this unexpected natural disaster, we are prepared to extend any assistance with rescue and relief which you may deem appropriate,” Singh said.

US President George Bush said help was on the way to victims of what he called a “horrible tragedy” while in Brussels the European Union earmarked three million euros ($3,6-million) for the rescue effort.

“The people of the United States offer our deepest sympathies for the loss of life and destruction caused by the earthquake that struck outside of Islamabad,” Bush said.

UN chief Kofi Annan said he was “deeply saddened by the loss of life and destruction” caused by the earthquake, as the world body rushed an emergency team to Pakistan to coordinate rescue efforts.

In Britain, which has a sizeable Pakistani community, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the government was prepared to respond to “all demands” for help and espressed “sadness” at the disaster.

Britain, along with France and Japan, dispatched specialist rescue teams with sniffer dogs and special cutting equipment to Pakistan.

Kashmir is well known to be a high-risk area for earthquakes as it lies on the collision area of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates which created the mighty Himalayas 50-million years ago. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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