Toddler found alive in earthquake rubble

KHILARI - A 19-month-old girl was plucked alive from beneath the rubble of her home yesterday, five days after India's worst earthquake in 50 years turned her village into a graveyard, army rescuers said.

Priyanka Wagle was found underneath her overturned cot buried in rubble more than one metre (three feet) deep, said Brigadier Pritam Singh, whose unit found the child in the village of Khilari. 'This is a miracle, for which we thank the Almighty,' Brigadier Singh said.

Priyanka was only the ninth person found alive by army rescuers following Thursday's quake, which measured 6.4 on the Richter scale and flattened hundreds of homes across more than 70 villages in western India. Up to 22,000 people died and 150,000 have been made homeless. Most of those saved were pulled out by relatives or civilian volunteers soon after stone walls crushed families as they slept .

The baby was discovered when her father, Venkat Wagle, returned to Khilari to arrange her cremation, assuming she had died. She was unearthed by Lieutenant Suneet Baxi alongside several other family members who had died. As she was pulled out she asked for water and her mother, Brigadier Singh said. She was given milk and fruit juice and was taken to the hospital where her mother is recovering.

'She's a national treasure. We have to save her,' said Brigadier Singh. The army began bulldozing the rubble on Sunday after giving up hope of finding more survivors.

India's Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, promised yesterday to meet the cost of rebuilding razed villages and help those made homeless to start a new life.

''There's never been such a huge earthquake in the region in our living memory,' he told reporters. 'I hope to God the death-toll is not what is being reported by newspapers.' Some local newspapers had put the toll as high as 44,000. But government officials say the figure is likely to be less than earlier feared, probably up to 22,000.

International aid began to pour in yesterday for the victims. After visiting two of the devastated villages, Khilari and Sastur, Mr Rao announced he would accept World Bank aid for a rebuilding programme. 'I am hopeful a new life will begin for them,' he said.

'Construction costs of the villages will be fully met,' the Prime Minister added. He said the government would also launch a complete seismological mapping of the area to discover hidden fault-lines. Sharad Pawar, Chief Minister of Maharashtra state, said the cost of rebuilding 52 villages wholly or partially demolished was estimated at 3.50bn rupees ( pounds 76m).

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