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Thousands of victims in Russia's worst quake



in Tokyo

Thousands of people are believed to have died when one of the worst earthquakes in Russian history hit the far-eastern island of Sakhalin early yesterday.

Last night rescue workers were searching the remains of multi-storey buildings in fog and freezing temperatures. The vice-governor of Sakhalin, Vitaly Gomilevsky, said at least 2,500 people had been killed or injured. In the oil-producing settlement of Neftegorsk , which suffered the worst damage, only 500 inhabitants were confirmed alive out of a population of 3,500.

The First Deputy Prime Minister, Oleg Soskovets, called it "the worst earthquake ever'' in Russia. "It is a calamity," he said in Moscow.

The earthquake, measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale, struck at just after 1am. The tremor that killed 5,500 people in the Japanese city of Kobe in January measured 7.2. The Sakhalin quake's epicentre was below the Sea of Okhotsk. In the regional centre, Okha, balconies and walls collapsed but there were no reports of deaths. But Neftegorsk, 55 miles away, was destroyed, according to Itar-Tass news agency.

All of the town's five-storey concrete apartment blocks collapsed, burying 3,000 people. Reports spoke of 300 confirmed dead, with thousands more still buried under the rubble.

"Nineteen five- to seven-storey buildings were destroyed and virtually no one managed to leave their buildings," said Alexander Yudin, of the civil defence headquarters in the island's capital, Yuzhno Sakhalinsk. "Five hundred people who managed to leave their houses are wandering around shocked."

Survivors were being billeted in camps built for the old Soviet youth league, the Young Pioneers.

Rescue workers from eastern Siberia were on their way to the disaster zone. A team was also being sent from Moscow, led by the Minister for Emergencies, Sergei Shoigu.

Two hundred rescuers were at the scene last night but they were hampered by the weather and a lack of lifting equipment.

Sakhalin, 4,000 miles and eight time zones from Moscow, is one of the most isolated corners of the former Soviet Union. It lies off Russia's eastern seaboard and north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido and has a population of 750,000.

The region has always been seismically active. In October last year an even bigger quake, measuring 8.2 on the Richter scale, produced tidal waves and killed at least 10 people on the nearby Kurile Islands, which are occupied by Russia and claimed by Japan. Half a dozen smaller quakes were felt in Hokkaido last week.