Aftershocks hit Indian quake area as death toll rises to 110

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SEVERE AFTERSHOCKS hampered rescue workers' efforts yesterday to reach survivors of Monday's earthquake in the Himalayan foothills of northern India.

Witnesses report that people have been using their hands to dig through piles of stone and mud to reach buried relatives in the town of Chamoli, the epicentre of the earthquake, where hundreds of bodies are believed to be entombed in rubble. The official death toll of 110 is expected to rise further.

Landslides triggered by the earthquake - which, at 6.8 on the Richter scale, was the biggest in the region for 90 years - have cut communications with many of the affected areas. Indian Air Force planes and helicopters were flying sorties yesterday over the earthquake zone, dropping aid to survivors in remote villages around Chamoli. Many are still without shelter or electricity and have had almost all their food stocks buried. The extent of the damage in the area was still unclear late yesterday.

Shridhar Pathak, Chamoli's senior police officer, said a total of 14 villages had been reported as "destroyed" and that about 90 per cent of Chamoli itself - the local administrative centre - had been damaged.

Nearly 150 people had been rescued from collapsed houses so far, Mr Pathak said, and several hundred injured were being treated by military medics in makeshift hospitals. At least 5,000 people have been made homeless.

Last night, thousands more villagers spent a third night in the open for fear of further damage from the aftershocks - some registering four on the Richter scale - which continued to shake the area.

Chamoli is at an altitude of nearly 1,070 metres (3,500ft) and many of the affected villages are far higher. Although winter is over, the nights are still cold.

The earthquake struck at 12.35am on Monday when most people were asleep. Entire families were wiped out. One local resident told reporters that five members of his family of seven had died.

Another described how he had spent Monday night digging in the debris of his house with a shovel, only to find two buried relatives dead. Six prisoners were killed when the Chamoli jail collapsed.

"For a minute, all the earth seemed to be shaking... we all ran out of our houses very, very scared," said Himanshu Thapliyal, 28, a lawyer in Biyasi, a small town near Chamoli.

Romesh Sharma, a teacher in Chamoli, said he rushed out of his house when he heard "a terrific noise", only to see the buildings around him collapse. "I ran for my life to the police station but that, too, had crumpled," he told a local reporter.

Another Chamoli resident said the earthquake felt as "if the earth was coming apart and the mountains were coming crashing down on the villages''.

The 40-second jolt cracked buildings 185 miles (300km) away in the capital, Delhi, and was felt in neighbouring Pakistan and Nepal.

Pakistani officials said the earthquake shook the eastern cities of Lahore and Gujranwala. The officials said Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, had sent a message of sympathy to his Indian counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.