Darkness at dawn in India: More than 10,000 die after double earthquake flattens sleeping towns and villages in drought-hit heartland

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MORE THAN 10,000 people were killed and a further 10,000 injured when an earthquake struck the Indian heartland before dawn yesterday, flattening more than 30 villages and towns in the populous states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andra Pradesh.

'The rising sun created darkness for us this morning, swallowed up our villages, and made our houses into tombs,' a survivor told one reporter.

The two tremors, the first measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale, lasted less than five seconds. Many sleeping villagers were buried alive as their stone and mud huts collapsed. Authorities said that more than 6,000 people may have perished from two towns, Khilari and Umarga, near the epicentre, about 280 miles east of Bombay. The Maharashtra state police chief, S V Baraokar, said: 'It is a human tragedy of unimaginable proportions.'

Army rescue teams digging in Osmanabad and Latur districts have pulled more than 3,000 bodies from the debris. Most victims were poor farmers, suffering from a six- month drought after vital monsoon rains had passed them by.

In Khilari, some villagers wept, others were silent as corpse after corpse was loaded on to bullock carts.

Hari Chandra Braydar, who was helping neighbours to unearth relatives from the rubble, said: 'There was a big banging sound that woke me up. I rushed out of the door, but I couldn't see anything - the street, everything, was covered in clouds of dust and mist. I shut my eyes and when I could open them again, it looked as though my village had turned into a bloody burial ground.' He rescued his wife and two children from his demolished house.

India has not requested any international rescue aid. In a country buffeted by frequent natural disasters, the Indian army has learnt to cope. In 1991, an earthquake in the Himalayan mountains, near Uttarkashi, left more than 1,500 dead. Survivors complained that the government was slow in reaching the worst affected villages.

The epicentre of the two tremors, which hit at 3.56am and 4.45am, was in a region known for seismic instability. Last year more than 1,000 tremors, most little more than trembles of the earth, shook the Latur district, where Khilani and other badly hit towns are located. Authorities in Maharashtra and Karnataka said more than 4,000 villages were over 85 per cent destroyed. Sharad Pawar, the Maharashtra chief minister, and Lal Krishna Advani, leader of the main opposition group, the Bharatiya Janata Party, toured the devastated town of Khilari.

Doordarshan television reported last night that 10,000 had died and more than 12,000 people could be trapped in the wreckage. However, there was no news from Latur, a city of half a million people which lies 20 miles from the quake's epicentre.

It is the worst earthquake to hit India for over 50 years, and the shockwaves were felt hundreds of miles away in Madras, Bombay and Bangalore.

A Meterological Office spokesman in Pune, about 100 miles from the epicentre, said that the vibrations were so strong that the recording machine smudged the data, making it impossible for scientists to gauge the quake's ferocity.

The Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, dispatched three columns of army troops, medical units and ambulances to assist in relief work. Thousands of tents were erected to house survivors. Doctors are worried that they could fall prey to epidemics such as cholera and hepatitis over the coming weeks.

The rains, which the Indians of this drought-stricken region had been praying for for many months, came at last yesterday - bogging down rescue work.

Geology of disaster, page 12

(Photograph omitted)