Quake Rescue Efforts Stepped Up : Toll Over 650 in Himalayas; Rains Hamper Searchers

Times Staff Writer

Rescue and relief efforts intensified in both Nepal and India on Monday as the official death toll climbed past 650 in the strongest earthquake to hit the Himalayas in more than half a century.

Narajam Thapa, Nepal's home minister, said at a news conference Monday that at least 450 people have been killed in this mountainous kingdom, while Indian radio placed the toll at 200 dead in eastern Bihar state alone. More than 3,000 people were believed injured and thousands were left homeless in the 45-second temblor, which struck before dawn Sunday.

"There may be many more," Thapa said when asked about casualties.

Officials in both countries expect the toll to rise as reports come in from isolated villages, where power and communications are cut off.

"In Nepal, a lot of areas haven't reported yet," Elroy J. Carlson, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Katmandu, said. "The only communication is with radio-telephone in district headquarters, and the mountain people have to walk in with the news."

At the same time, rescue efforts are being hampered by heavy monsoon rains. "The rains will only trigger landslides and wash villages down into rivers and valleys," Thapa warned. "Access to some areas of this mountain country is impossible."

Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi ordered a team of surgeons to Bihar, where hospitals have been overwhelmed by the injured, then flew to the state capital of Patna for talks with state officials. After surveying the devastated region by helicopter, Gandhi announced an initial $215,000 relief fund for quake victims.

In New Delhi, both houses of Parliament observed two minutes of silence in homage to the victims of the quake, the strongest to hit the region since 1934, when more than 10,000 people died. Sunday's temblor measured 6.7 on the Richter scale.

In Katmandu, the U.S. Embassy announced an emergency grant of $25,000 to assist Nepal in rescue operations. The British Embassy here announced that Britain will fly in a six-person medical team with about 700 pounds of medical supplies to assist the Nepalese government.

Thapa called for full injury and damage reports within three days so relief and rehabilitation programs can be expanded.

Tourist Sites Unscathed

Little damage was reported in Katmandu itself, and such well-known tourist sites as the Buddhist shrines of Swayambhunath and Bodhnath were not harmed.

But unofficial reports said seven people were killed in Bhaktapur, an ancient town that lies 8 miles east of the capital near Tribhuvan International Airport, within sight of the icy massifs of the Himalayas.

In Bhaktapur, hotel employee C. B. Pradhan said he and his wife were jolted awake by the tremor.

"I picked up my little daughter and started walking outside, but the floor kept moving under my feet," Pradhan recalled.

The quake, which destroyed thousands of brick, straw and stone homes in Nepal and eastern India, was centered in Nepal's Udaipur district, 100 miles southeast of the capital. Several aftershocks were registered Sunday, but none were felt Monday.

Twenty-one of the kingdom's 75 districts suffered extensive damage, Thapa said. The hardest hit appeared to be Dharan, a sparsely populated border region where at least 131 people were reported killed.

A relief worker in Dharan, until recently the site of a British recruiting center for Gurkha fighters, said most of the dead there "were buried alive under collapsed houses."

The border town of Biratnagar also was reported hard hit.

In Bihar, the toll was reported highest in the Dharbanga and Monghyr districts, with more than 25,000 houses destroyed.

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