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Thousands flee ruins of Japanese quake city

Kobe - Hundreds of thousands of people fled Kobe yesterday, abandoning the smouldering ruins of a city in which over 3,000 are now known to have died. As darkness fell for the second time since the earthquake struck, more than 800 people were stil l missing, presumed buried in the rubble.

This morning, a major fire broke out in the main shopping area of the city. The new fire came after a huge explosion at 7.30am. Lack of firefighting water, a strong northerly wind and extremely dry conditions meant the fire could spread to other large department stores nearby.

On foot, by bicycle, in shared cars, the survivors packed the main roads out of town. Some were limping, others in bandages, looking like war refugees as they picked their way past collapsed buildings. Only lines of hearses were heading into town.

Rescue workers worked into the darkness to recover more bodies. Many of the victims were found in the beds or futons (floor mattresses) in which they had been sleeping when the quake struck at 5.46am on Tuesday. Twelve dogs specially trained to search for people under rubble were due to arrive from Switzerland today.

Great swathes of Japan's fifth largest city were left as smashed or blackened stumps, reminiscent of the aftermath of a World War Two bombing raid. Stunned by the devastation, newspapers and construction experts were asking why the damage and casualties had been so enormous in a nation which had prided itself on its ability to minimise the effects of earthquakes.

Many of the newest buildings, designed according to the latest quake-resistant theories, rode the shock remarkably well.

But key questions remained: why did highways and railway lines collapse? Why did nearly 10,000 buildings collapse, with more than 10,000 others severely damaged? Why was it so hard to control fires? Why were water and electricity supplies still not operating?

"The most important point to rethink is construction standards," said Isao Sakamoto, an engineering professor in Tokyo University's department of architecture.

People queued in the rare stores that were open and a few even looted abandoned shops. Others stood in line with buckets and kettles for water from emergency supply trucks, while the really desperate used cups and ladles to scrape water off the ground above burst pipes leaking onto the street.

There was also was growing criticism over the slow start in helping the earthquake victims. Kobe residents said the lack of preparation made it hard to cope with the disaster.

The governor of Osaka province lashed back at the critics by suggesting that the refugees in the worst-hit area of Kobe were being lazy. "[The refugees] should cook their meals for themselves but they don't have the will to do so," Kazuo Nakagawa told local government officials gathered to discuss relief measures.

Police said 1.1 million households were out of running water, 400,000 out of electricity and 830,000 out of gas. Many hospitals, lacking electricity, were unable to carry out surgical operations or even an X-ray, medical administrators said.

Temples - given the grim task of acting as morgues for the dead - reported they were running out of space.

The Japanese government has earmarked 100bn yen (£650m) in initial emergency aid and adopted an eight-point plan for mobilising relief efforts, including special loans for housing and rehabilitation of small enterprises.

The government said that it would give 5m yen (£32,500) to families whose breadwinner died and 2.5m yen (£16,150) if another family member perished.

It may also present a supplementary budget for disaster relief, Cabinet Secretary Kozo Igarashi said.