Death toll climbs as Nepal struggles in quake aftermath

* Strong aftershocks continue to rattle region, hampering rescue efforts * Offers of aid pour in from countries such as US, China, India and S'pore

THE death toll from the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal's Kathmandu valley on Saturday has soared well past 2,300, with the impact wrought on the remote rugged countryside still unclear.

In the capital, Kathmandu, where most power lines are down, rescue workers and local residents picked through rubble with bare hands looking for survivors of the 7.8-magnitude quake, while Nepalese and Indian army helicopters criss-crossed the skies above on their way to rural villages.

Aftershocks continued to rattle the region yesterday, hampering rescue efforts. One powerful tremor in the afternoon which shook Kathmandu and was again felt in New Delhi, temporarily halted flights at Kathmandu's international airport and sent residents who had ventured indoors after a long and edgy night, scurrying outside again.

As the stricken Himalayan nation struggles in the aftermath of Saturday's disaster, offers of help have flooded in from countries, including China, the United States, India and Singapore, even before the Nepalese government officially requested international assistance.

Last night, two Singapore planes carrying personnel and supplies left for Nepal. On board were a team of six from the Changi Regional Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Coordination Centre who will help the Nepalese authorities coordinate relief efforts. There is also a search and rescue team from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).

A third plane, with a contingent from the police, including members of its Gurkha unit, and a second batch of SCDF officers, is scheduled to leave this morning.

With countries also looking to evacuate their nationals who are stuck in Nepal, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a crisis response team to Kathmandu yesterday morning to help Singaporeans who may want to leave.

In Kathmandu, houses remained empty and shops shuttered as most residents grabbed mattresses and blankets to spend a second night outdoors, terrified more of aftershocks than the cold. Across central Nepal, hundreds of thousands more were also camping out, braving the cold and wintry winds.

Saturday's quake has not only devastated Nepal but also led to loss of lives in neighbouring India, China and Bangladesh.

Foreigners too have fallen victim, many of them climbers who were preparing for their ascent of Mount Everest. Scores of them were waiting to be evacuated around the base camp after aftershocks hampered rescue efforts. Eighteen bodies have been recovered from the base camp so far.

Many foreigners were also feared dead in the collapsed Budget Hotel in Thamel, Kathmandu's backpacker enclave.

Yesterday, Indian Defence Ministry spokesman Sitanshu Kar said in a statement that 13 flights by military aircraft would carry water, food, army field hospitals, rescue teams, medical personnel and equipment, and blankets and tents to those in need.

While bulldozers were clearing rubble off the streets of the capital, the communities outdoors appeared to have received little government help from a country that has little capacity to deal with a disaster of this magnitude.

But years of preparedness training meant that despite the absence of official assistance, communities in Kathmandu valley were coming together and helping themselves, Mr Kunda Dixit, editor of Nepali Times, said in an interview. "Priority now is access to remote areas, which is a logistical problem," Mr Dixit added.

Mr Mark South, working with the British Red Cross, said in an interview: "The main need at the moment is for medical supplies, and also shelter... Then there is a need for sanitation and water. Water is scarce even at the best of times."

Humanitarian groups such as the Singapore Red Cross and Mercy Relief are sending relief supplies and emergency assistance to Nepal, and are also appealing for urgent donations from the public.

nirmal@sph.com.sg

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