Hospitals overflowing, rural towns cut off - aid groups

HONG KONG (AFP) - International aid groups and governments intensified efforts to get rescuers and supplies into earthquake-hit Nepal on Sunday, but severed communications and landslides in the Himalayan nation posed formidable challenges to the relief effort.

As the death toll surpassed 2,300, the US together with several European and Asian nations sent emergency crews to reinforce those scrambling to find survivors in the devastated capital Kathmandu and in rural areas cut off by blocked roads and patchy phone networks.

"We know that in many areas - both rural and in some of the larger towns - have suffered landslides and roads are cut off," said Mike Bruce, regional communications manager for Plan International aid organisation.

Although mobile networks appeared to be being restored by mid-afternoon on Sunday, he said, coverage remained sporadic.

"People are sleeping on the streets and cooking outside for the most part. And we are talking about very, very poor areas of Nepal - areas that are already suffering a great deal," said Brice.

Other aid organisations relayed their fears that stocks of essential supplies were rapidly running out, and described the fearsome effects of the quake.

"We witnessed terrible scenes of destruction - hospitals were evacuated with patients being treated on the ground outside, homes and buildings demolished and some roads cracked wide open," said Eleanor Trinchera, Caritas Australia programme coordinator for Nepal, who was an hour outside the capital when the quake struck.

A lack of electricity would soon be complicated by a scarcity of water, aid groups said, with medical supplies also dwindling, while Oxfam told AFP morgues were reaching capacity.

"Communication systems are congested and hospitals are crowded and are running out of room for storing dead bodies," Helen Szoke, the charity's Australia chief executive, told AFP.

Survivors also slept in the open in Kathmandu overnight, braving the cold for fear of being crushed by the teetering ruins of buildings.

Hundreds of structures, including office blocks and a landmark nine-storey tower, crashed to the ground at around midday on Saturday when the 7.8-magnitude quake struck.

Millions pledged in aid

Meanwhile snowfalls on Saturday thwarted efforts to airlift survivors from an avalanche that hit part of Everest base camp, killing at least 18 people, although choppers started landing on Sunday.

As Nepal began to take stock of the devastation, a US disaster response team was en route and an initial US$1 million (S$1.33 million) in aid to address immediate needs had been authorised, the US Agency for International Development said.

Australia and New Zealand together pledged more than US$4.5 million, and said they were working to locate hundreds of their citizens believed to be in Nepal, and South Korea promised US$1 million in humanitarian aid.

India dispatched two military transport planes as it emerged that at least 53 people had died there from the effects of the massive quake.

There were similar offers from around the region, including Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Taiwan.

A 62-member Chinese search and rescue team with sniffer dogs was on the ground in Kathmandu, and added that a medical team would be mobilised and work started on an emergency aid plan, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Seventeen people were killed by the earthquake in Tibet, according to Chinese state media.

A Singaporean search and rescue team was also heading for the Himalayan nation, while members of its armed forces would also support the relief efforts with deployment of "suitable resources", the city-state's government said.

Japan confirmed its own 70-strong emergency services team would leave for Nepal on Sunday, and the European Union said its humanitarian experts were heading to the crisis areas.

France's foreign ministry said Sunday it had dispatched a rescue team carrying essential supplies to Kathmandu.

Several French nationals were in the earthquake zone and 500 had been identified so far, the ministry said.

'Urgent need for assistance'

Germany, Britain and Spain also pledged support and assistance, with Norway promising to provide 30 million krone (S$5.14 million) in humanitarian aid.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the earthquake was "shocking news" and vowed his country, which swiftly sent a team of humanitarian experts to Nepal, "will do all we can to help those caught up in it".

Israel said it was sending an aid delegation to Nepal, including a team of paramedics and doctors.

Charity Christian Aid launched an appeal for funds and said it was working with partner agencies to reach the worst hit areas, describing an "urgent need" for emergency shelters, food, clean drinking water and warm clothing.