Fears grow of new Russian quake

Neftegorsk - The two children, playing near a freshly dug grave on the edge of this shattered oil town, recounted their family's tragedy in an almost matter-of-fact way.

"Mummy was ill and Daddy had gone to the hospital. When the ground started moving, he was on the street and couldn't get back," nine-year-old Sveta said. "Mummy was crushed, but Daddy was okay," she added.

Three days after a 7.5-magnitude earthquake flattened their town, entombing more than 2,000 people, a car has become home for Sveta, her eight-year- old brother Sergei and their father.

The children showed no signs of grief at the tragedy that robbed them of their mother, grandmother and grandfather. They brightened considerably when a rescue worker brought over boxes of cereal, biscuits and tubes of vitamin tablets.

As they spoke, earthmovers cleared ground for family-sized graves in the harsh scrubland on the outskirts of town.

Although a major rescue operation is under way to extricate survivors from the tangle of metal and concrete, authorities are under no illusion that the death-toll will be under 2,000. Rows of bodies still lie near the ruins where rescuers are battling to reach any living people that may lie beneath.

Some families have already buried their dead in pits near the rundown graveyard. As yet, there is only one makeshift headstone from Sunday's tragedy, marking the graves of 60-year-old Lidiya Laikina and her six- year-old granddaughter Oxsana Gadeyeva.

A figure lying prone on the ground near by turned out to be a woman in mourning and prostrate with grief.

Officials said yesterday that 32 survivors had been detected after mechanical work was stopped and rescue workers shouted down into the ruins.

"Now we are trying to get them out. But there are no less than 2,000 others trapped, maybe dead. God willing that the death-toll would be less than 2,000," said Alexander Avdoshin, spokesman for the Ministry for Emergency Situations.

Experts blamed shoddy building work and the closure of seismological warning stations for the death-toll. The flattened blocks dated from the 1960s and 1970s, a time when Soviet builders traditionally cut corners in the desperate rush to throw up accommodation.

Russia has mounted a big operation involving 800 specialists, 18 planes and 14 helicopters to rescue survivors from the rubble and ferry the injured to hospital. President Boris Yeltsin, in a televised address to the nation, promised to pay up to 50m roubles (pounds 6,500) to every victim's family and declared today a day of mourning. "For you who have suffered and lost your near ones ... you grieve. It is hard for you. But know that all Russia is with you," he said.

Worse could be to come, since a Russian seismologist predicted the Far Eastern peninsula of Kamchatka would soon be hit by a worse earthquake.

Many survivors, some with their faces badly scorched around the eyes from flames which engulfed several apartment blocks, after they crumbled, are still in shock. They head for a makeshift information centre set up in a one-storey hostel - one of the few buildings that survived the earthquake - with pleas for help for people still trapped.

Some want access to the ruins, patrolled by police to prevent looting, to retrieve their belongings. Farm animals on allotments cry out to their absent owners for food and water.

A generator to power floodlights is the only source of power in the town. There is no running water and only three telephones which can only call numbers in Sakhalin, a remote island eight time zones and 4,500 miles east of Moscow.

In the information centre, a pile of telegrams from relatives anxious for news of their relatives lie on a table. "They are all gone," says a woman finding one from her friend inquiring about her family. "All her family has gone. How can I tell her," she said tears streaming down her face.

Near what used to be the town centre, a life-size statue of Lenin - one of the few structures left standing - gazes out across the tragic scene.