Thousands feared dead after Indian earthquake

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The Independent Online

Thousands of people are feared dead after the most powerful earthquake to strike India in half a century ripped through the north-west state of Gujarat near the border with Pakistan early yesterday, wreaking a trail of destruction and sending out shockwaves that shuddered through the entire sub-continent.

Thousands of people are feared dead after the most powerful earthquake to strike India in half a century ripped through the north-west state of Gujarat near the border with Pakistan early yesterday, wreaking a trail of destruction and sending out shockwaves that shuddered through the entire sub-continent.

By late yesterday 1.500 were reported dead but the final toll was expected to climb to several thousand.

As night fell, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister, put relief teams on a war footing. He called on "all people to rally together at this time of national calamity", but made no appeal for international aid.

Bhuj, a desert town of 150,000 people in Gujarat, appears to have been the epicentre. At least 200 people were killed there when the quake, measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale, struck at 8.50am local time as celebrations for India's 51st Republic Day were just beginning.

Even in the capital, Delhi, skyscrapers swayed and as far away as Kathmandu in Nepal and Satkhira in Bangladesh, aftershocks were felt.

In Ahmedabad, the commercial capital of Gujarat some 300km (185 miles) from the epicentre, more than 400 were killed. In the city of 4.5 million, a centre of the Indian textile industry, as many as 50 blocks of flats, factories and other buildings collapsed like decks of cards. The city shook and shuddered for a full two minutes and hardly a building was left unscathed, the authorities said.

"It was like being on a swing. Nobody could get out for those 20 or 30 seconds," said Vinay Kumar, who works for Gujarat Petroleum Corp in Ahmedabad.

The quake was the most powerful to strike India since 1950, when an 8.5 magnitude temblor killed 1,538 people in north-eastern Assam state.

Last night every hospital in Ahmedabad was crammed with the injured, as rescue workers dug through wreckage in search of more survivors. Corpses were piled up on the verandah of the city's NS hospital. Survivors, overflowed into the corridors, screaming and wailing, their wounds gaping. Seventy people died while waiting to be treated.

At the main fire station there was chaos. Staff were besieged by panic-stricken people imploring them to dig out family members trapped or buried under the rubble. "This is an emergency. We are facing a riotous crowd," the fire chief, Rajesh Bhat, said. "A fear psychosis is developing in the city."

Elsewhere in Ahmedabad, 70 children and teachers were feared dead in their ruined school building, while 19 engineering students were trapped in a collapsed college.

The government was flying 10,000 tents, 10,000 tons of grain, 20 doctors and surgeons, communications and seismology experts to Gujarat. The international Red Cross launched an appeal for $1.25m to support emergency relief.

Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, wrote to the Indian Prime Minister expressing sorrow for the deaths. "I have been saddened at the tragic loss of life."

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