Desperate struggle to reach earthquake survivors as toll hits 30,000

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He had survived more than 24 hours trapped in a narrow space between the concrete slabs that pulverised his neighbours, and now his heart stopped beating just as the rescuers got him out.

"Get back! He needs oxygen," one of the medics shouted at the crowd. The onlookers told us his name was Iqbal. They gave him a heart massage and resuscitation on top of the rubble of his house.

The rescue worker who was giving him mouth-to-mouth broke off and lifted his face to scream "Ambulance! Ambulance!" at the crowd, his voice cracking with desperation.

Trapped down there amid the rubble for more than a day, Iqbal must have heard the moans and cries for help from the other survivors as he lay helpless. Now he was fighting for his life before our eyes.

Then there was a shout of joy. His heart had started again, a battered ambulance arrived and he was driven to a heli-pad to be airlifted to Islamabad.

The scale of the devastating earthquake that hit here on Saturday morning was revealed yesterday, when Pakistani- administered Kashmir, which was cut off from the outside world by landslides for a day, was finally opened up. The death toll was far higher than even the worst fears on Saturday: at least 30,000 by yesterday evening, with thousands more bodies still to be dug from the rubble.

And this was Muzaffarabad, by now being called the city of death, the closest built-up area to the epicentre of an earthquake so powerful it was felt from Afghanistan to Bangladesh.

"Please, please, you must help me," one man cried as he pushed his way up to the rescue workers. "My brother is trapped in the rubble. He is alive but he will die if you do not come and dig him out." But they told the man he would have to wait. In the entire town there was just one team of six rescue workers ­ and they had flown in from Turkey. There just weren't enough of them to go around, and a man and a woman were still trapped alive in the ruins of the building where they were digging. " Give me the stone cutters if you can't come," the man beseeched them. "I will cut him out myself."

The earthquake that hit Muzaffarabad on Saturday measured 7.6 on the Richter scale. Whole sections of the town had collapsed. The streets were lined with rubble. Thousands probably died here. Thousands more were leaving town yesterday, abandoning their broken homes and setting off into the hills. Those without cars walked up the steep hillsides under the hot sun, many with their heads bandaged. Others had babies swaddled against the sun in Kashmiri pashminas.

There was nothing for them to stay for. There is no hospital any more in Muzaffarabad ­ it was destroyed. Nobody has time to bury the dead, and they lie decomposing under the sun. But there was little sign of a Pakistani rescue operation here yesterday, and anger was burning on the streets.

"The government and army have done nothing, and the government has totally failed to help the people," shouted the man whose brother was trapped.

His name was Faiz Bangasa, and he had walked for five hours across the hills to get here in the hope of finding his brothers alive. When he got here one brother was dead, and the other was trapped in the rubble and crying out for help.

He took us to where Nadir, his brother, was trapped. Family members stood on top of a mound of rubble, shouting through a small hole to Nadir. They said his answers were growing fainter and further apart. He was standing in a narrow space, but his legs were badly injured and he could not hold out much longer. There was a woman trapped inside with him. The family had managed to push a plastic hose into the rubble to get water to Nadir.

His other brother's body lay wrapped in a blue sheet on the ground. But Mr Bangasa was trying to save his living brother, trapped in the rubble.

"The people are having to do everything for themselves, and nobody is doing anything," said Mr Bangasa. "The only people helping are the Turks. We condemn the Pakistani government and we condemn President Pervez Musharraf. He can work for the US and the UK but he is not working for his own people."

It is not often that anyone speaks so openly against Pakistan's military ruler. "I am not afraid," said Mr Bangasa. "You can write my name, you can publish my picture."

Muzaffarabad is the capital of the Pakistani part of the divided region of Kashmir, fought over by India and Pakistan for more than 50 years, and it is supposed to be a showpiece for Pakistan's ambition to rule all of Kashmir. But yesterday resentment against the Pakistani government was growing here.

"Where is the army?" said Mohsin Ali, a 19-year-old Kashmiri. "Kashmir is Pakistan, I believe it in my heart, but what is the army doing?"

The front line with India is only a short distance away, and Muzaffarabad is usually teeming with soldiers. But in the darkest hour in Muzaffarabad's history, there were hardly any soldiers on the streets. Of those there were, most seemed to be just watching as the residents dug desperately in the rubble for their loved ones. The only sign of a military relief operation was the regular helicopter flights taking the seriously wounded to hospital.

With the desperate hunt for survivors, there was no time to dispose of the bodies. In the remains of the Hotel Rehmat, you could see hands sticking out in the narrow gaps between the layers of concrete that were the collapsed floors of the hotel. At one end, you could see the head of a young man sticking out of the end of the remains, still lying peacefully on his pillow as he was when the earthquake struck. But the rest of his body was crushed, and the head had started to turn black in the sun. His name was Younis, people said. He worked in the hotel; he was just 17.

At the site of the hospital there was a pile of broken concrete where the main building once stood. "The dead in there were uncountable," said Mohammed Liaqat. A second building was still standing but was so badly cracked no one dared to go near it.

Patients rescued from the hospital were lying in the gardens next to the ruins, their X-rays and charts tucked up next to them. The dead had been laid out beside them, their faces respectfully covered with old blankets and sheets. Groups of relatives came to see if their loved ones were among the dead, nervously peeling back the sheets. One blanket twitched back, revealing the face of a young girl. There was a bandage around her head. She had not died instantly.

By nightfall, there was another body to join them. Iqbal, the man dug out of the rubble alive, died on the way to the heli-pad.