x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Rescuers in desperate bids to reach Indian quake victims in remote areas

Help hampered by monsoon rains as death toll from Sunday¿s 6.8-magnitude earthquake in the Himalayas hits 63.

People try to take out a motorbike buried under the debris of a house damaged by Sunday's earthquake in Bhaktapur about 14 kilometers from Katmandu, Nepal, yesterday. AP Photo
People try to take out a motorbike buried under the debris of a house damaged by Sunday's earthquake in Bhaktapur about 14 kilometers from Katmandu, Nepal, yesterday. AP Photo

Rescue workers were struggling to reach remote Himalayan villages across north-eastern India, Nepal and Tibet last night as the death toll from Sunday's 6.8-magnitude earthquake rose to 63.

The epicentre of the quake lay in the tiny Indian state of Sikkim, near the border with Nepal, where at least 35 people died.

It may take days for the final number of casualties to be confirmed but border police said they did not think the death toll would be on a massive scale.

The hundreds of paramilitary soldiers and police scrambling to clear debris and find survivors were hampered by monsoon rains, which have pounded the state for the past four days, weakening buildings ahead of the quake.

While most casualties were caused by collapsing homes, it was announced last night that 10 of those killed were workers from the Teesta hydroelectric project in the north of the state.

The mountainous terrain of the Himalayas was made even more treacherous by landslides that left many isolated villages cut off from rescue teams.

The home ministry said there had been at least 21 landslides in a single 10 kilometre stretch of Sikkim.

TV broadcasters showed footage of buildings buckled, sidewalks cracked and two major roads collapsed in Sikkim's capital, Gangtok.

About 5,500 army troops and 700 border paramilitaries were deployed to reopen access to the city, after more than 400 rescue workers from the National Disaster Relief Force found themselves stranded in an airport more than 120km from Gangtok due to landslides and cave-ins which had severed the main motorway.

Thousands of residents fled their damaged homes to stay in government shelters or sleep on the streets.

While power had been restored to Gangtok yesterday, much of Sikkim and neighbouring West Bengal remained without electricity.

"People are still panicky," Pawan Thapa, a resident told Reuters. "We spent the whole night outside our homes."

Nine helicopters were deployed in the crisis zones, searching for survivors, ferrying teams of medics and carrying out food drops to stranded villagers.

They faced considerable difficulties in some parts of Sikkim due to thick cloud and fog and thousands of soldiers, rescue workers and medics were forced to head out on foot to more isolated villages.

But Sikkim had enough earthmoving equipment already in place for main roads to be cleared by yesterday afternoon.

"It has been a remarkable achievement by the rescue services," said RK Singh, the home secretary, yesterday. But he warned: "There could still be villages where people are trapped under houses that have not yet been reported and we haven't been able to reach."

At least eight people died in Nepal, including a motorcyclist and his eight-year-old daughter, who were among three people killed when a wall crumbled at the British embassy compound in the capital Kathmandu, 270km west of the epicentre.

Members of the Tibetan parliament who were debating the national budget ran out of the assembly hall in Kathmandu into a parking area when the quake struck.

They returned 15 minutes later and resumed their session.

China's official Xinhua news agency reported that at least seven people had been killed and 22 hurt in southern Tibet.

There were also casualty reports from the Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal, where seven people are reported dead and hundreds injured.

Buildings shook as far away as Delhi and Bangladesh, with some minor damage and several injuries reported.

The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, yesterday summoned the National Disaster Management Authority for an emergency meeting and ordered that its rescue teams be flown to the worst hit areas of Sikkim.

South Asia has seen a number of devastating earthquakes in the past decade, including the quake that hit Kashmir in October 2005, killing about 80,000 people on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border.

A 7.7-magnitude quake struck Gujarat in January 2001, killing more than 20,000.

It was a 9.3-magnitude earthquake in Indonesia that triggered the tsunami of December 2004, which killed an estimated 200,000 people in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Maldives.

Much of the Himalayan region is designated a Zone 5 area by the India Meteorological Department, the highest risk level for seismic activity.

The quakes are caused by a gradual push of the Indian tectonic plate into the Eurasian plate at an estimated rate of just under five centimetres a year.

That tiny movement is enough to put at least 40 million people at risk from major earthquakes, according to a study in 2001 for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Before Sunday, there have been six major Himalayan earthquakes in the past 200 years, the most recent in 1950.

With many parts of the Himalayas yet to release the building tension of tectonic movements, further major earthquakes, on a greater scale than this Sunday's, are expected.

"India has to have these giant earthquakes to slip northwards. Smaller events won't do it," one of the NOAA researchers, Roger Bilham, from the University of Colorado, told the BBC.