New Zealand quake death toll continues to rise

At least four Britons are now thought to have been killed in the the New Zealand earthquake, with the ever-increasing death toll expected to surpass the 200 mark in the coming days.

Police have so far confirmed the deaths of 148 people, but many more are still believed to be entombed under the collapsed buildings of the South Island city of Christchurch.

Two British holidaymakers hurt in the magnitude 6.3 quake remained in hospital today, British High Commissioner to New Zealand, Vicki Treadell, said.

However, the male and female, who suffered serious but not life-threatening injuries, are expected to be fit enough to fly home later in the week. At least one Briton is still missing.

A British taskforce of disaster victim identification (DVI) is due to arrive in Christchurch this afternoon to help identify the dead, a process which has been hindered by the catastrophic injuries suffered by many of the victims.

The High Commission said the eight-strong team, which includes a pathologist, odontologist and fingerprint expert, will assist experts from New Zealand and Australia.

Ms Treadell said: "We understand that there are four British nationals dead and are working closely with local authorities on identification.

"We are in touch with next of kin who are our priority and also working with them so formal identification can take place."

The commission has dealt with 300 Britons affected by last Tuesday's disaster, issuing 60 emergency passports.

"Many of them are now on their way home but our teams on the ground are still doing the rounds, visiting hospitals and attending family briefings," added Ms Treadall.

"We are working through the list of missing and cross referencing with information we have been given from the UK."

Two members of the DVI taskforce will arrive in the South Island city today, before being joined by the rest of their colleagues later in the week.

So far, only one of the British victims' names has been confirmed.

Gregory Tobin, 25, a chef, from Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, had been on a round-the-world trip and was believed to have been working temporarily at a garage in Christchurch when the devastation struck.

Chartered accountant Phil Coppeard, 41, from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, who emigrated to the country in November with his wife Suzanne Craig, was travelling into town on a bus when the tremors ripped through the city earlier this week. He has been missing ever since.

A multi-national team of more than 600 rescuers from New Zealand, the UK, the US, China, Taiwan, Japan, Mexico and Australia has spent the past six days scouring the city for survivors.

However, hopes are beginning to fade after another day passed with their efforts yielded only bodies.

More than 50 people remain unaccounted for however, according to New Zealand officials.

A 61-strong British specialist rescue team arrived in the city on Friday to help search for survivors among the flattened buildings.

Deployed after New Zealand accepted an offer of help from the British Government, they have been working among the ruins of the Pyne Gould Corporation building in the centre of the city, using acoustic listening devices to pick up any sound of life.

Peter Crook, who is leading the UK Fire Service International Search and Rescue Team on the ground, said it was possible survivors could yet be pulled from the rubble.

But he admitted the chances were growing ever slimmer.

The PGC building has had to be demolished to enable them to reach the bodies, as they were so deeply embedded in the debris.

"There could still be people alive in there," Mr Crook said. "It's obviously a remote chance but we still are in rescue mode. We know there's lots of bodies in there too.

"There could be voids where people could survive if they happened to be in the right place when the building came down but it seems that some of the people in this situation have been rescued in the first few days."

Although there have been "no positive signs" of survivors among the wreckage lately, the team is getting closer to the spaces where it is thought some could remain.

Mr Crook added: "The reality is we're not too hopeful but we're certainly not discounting the possibility of finding survivors."

Between 15 and 20 people are believed to be missing inside the ruins of the building.

The British team expects to remain on the ground for several more days.

Prime minister John Key has launched a Christchurch earthquake appeal, a global fundraiser for the recovery effort.

The appeal supplements those already established, including ones organised by the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, he said.

Donations can be made at http://www.christchurchearthquakeappeal.govt.nz

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