'I heard the screams . . . then silence and darkness': 25,000 people are feared dead in the rubble of the Indian quake. Tim McGirk reports from Maharashtra

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AS THE death toll in the Indian earthquake mounted beyond 25,000, according to unofficial figures, volunteer workers in the central state of Maharashtra searched the ruins of devastated villages by hand for survivors.

The Indian Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, sent the army to the rescue. But the convoys loaded with medical supplies, earth movers and thousands of soldiers were late in reaching the worst-hit districts of Latur and Osmanabad in eastern Maharashtra.

More than 13 villages and towns were almost completely demolished by Thursday's jolt, which measured 6.4 on the Richter scale. Volunteer workers, many of them barefoot students, lack even shovels and pickaxes.

In Sastur village, where 4,000 people died in seconds, hundreds of bodies fill the main square, awaiting a final ride in a bullock cart. The Hindu dead were taken for cremation to massive bonfires made from the roof beams of fallen houses, while the Muslims were shrouded in white cloths and placed in mass graves on a hillside near an ancient mosque. The square echoed with the sound of women's laments. Many, crying, held a corner of their saris over their faces against the stench as they sought their children among the rows of muddy corpses.

Some described the sound of the earthquake as like sitting on the tracks in front of a speeding locomotive. Others said it was like a terrible grinding from deep inside the earth.

On the night of the tremor Sastur village was packed. There had been a festival honouring an elephant- headed Hindu god, supposed to bring wealth and good luck. V S Munare, a visiting farmer and one of the revellers, was one of Sastur's few survivors.

Mr Munare was asleep under an awning on the street when the quake struck at 3.56am. 'Everything was shaking, and there were tremendous clouds of dust. The walls of the houses collapsed and tumbled into the streets. I could hear the screams of people trapped inside. Then there was only silence and darkness,' he said.

With every passing hour, the chances of finding any survivors in the razed villages of eastern Maharastra grow more doubtful. One doctor said: 'We had pulled out a few survivors in the daylight hours after the earthquake. But today we have not had any luck.'

The death toll was high because most of the villagers lived in ancient two-storey houses made of heavy stones and mud that cratered instantly. The earthquake was horribly capricious. I saw rescue workers pull two dead children from a mound of rubble, wrapped in the blankets in which they had been sleeping. Yet next to them was a television set without a dent.

A few light after-shocks jolted the region yesterday, convincing many survivors to abandon their villages for good.

'We can never go back,' said one village headman, Pradip Parti. 'We have had to set fire to bodies inside our homes; how can we go and live there now?' Tens of thousands who were left homeless are camping out in lean-tos made from tin sheeting and straw. Although the region has been suffering from a bad drought in recent months, torrential rain began after the quake, hampering rescue and relief work. Swarms of volunteers, students, doctors, engineers and nurses are pouring into the devastated villages.

India has decided 'in principle' to accept all foreign offers of aid. The foreign ministry denied that New Delhi had refused offers of foreign governmental assistance which is pouring in from around the world.

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