Yeltsin snubs Japan over earthquake aid

Neftegorsk - Rescue workers yesterday pulled more survivors and bodies from the rubble of this earthquake-devastated town on Sakhalin island, but hopes were fading that many more could be found alive.

President Boris Yeltsin injected a political note into the tragedy, suggesting Russia had spurned rescue aid from Japan - close to Sakhalin - because it feared Tokyo might use it as a lever to win concessions in a territorial dispute.

President Yeltsin's remarks on Japanese aid seemed controversial in light of the apparent limitations of Russia's rescue operations. Speaking to reporters on a visit to central Russia, Mr Yeltsin said: "We can do it ourselves, without the foreign aid, because they will later try to bargain over their participation ... The Japanese, they might say: 'Give us back the islands.' "

The Russian President was referring to the protracted dispute over a string of islands in the south Kurile chain off Japan's northern coast. The Soviet forces seized them at the end of the Second World War and Japan wants them back.

Mr Yeltsin's statement appeared intended mainly for domestic consumption by the powerful nationalist lobby in Russia. Despite his remarks, Russian news agencies announced plans for the First Deputy Prime Minister, Oleg Soskovets, to meet a senior Japanese diplomat to discuss ways in which Japan could help.

Survivors of the catastrophe spoke yesterday of their sense of hopelessness as they lay entombed in the ruins - injured, without water and certain that rescuers above them could not hear their cries for help. "Dying of thirst is a terrible death," said Alexandra Rot, 23, who was rescued with her husband, Sergei, when they were contemplating cutting their wrists.

Viktor Chernomyrdin, thePrime Minister, told his cabinet chances were fading of finding survivors. "Today for the first time, the number of people brought out alive was less than the number of bodies," he said.

The emergencies ministry said 445 dead and 388 injured had been recovered by yesterday morning. About 2,500 people, including about 450 children, are still missing. The final toll is expected to exceed 2,000.

Sunday's earthquake brought multi-storey buildings in the oil town toppling down on to inhabitants. Interfax news agency quoted local authorities as saying the town, which housed 3,200 people, will not be rebuilt. A small compound would be constructed for oil workers on the site. Survivors will get apartments in Okha, some 50 miles north of Neftegorsk, and in the regional capital, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, hundreds of miles to the south.

National flags flew at half-mast across the Russian Federation for a day of mourning.

Russia has mounted a big rescue, but power failures and lack of proper equipment slowed efforts. Russian television said the area would be sealed off to stop disease spreading.