International aid groups rush to reach victims

PARIS (AFP) - Countries and international aid groups rushed to respond Saturday to a massive earthquake in Nepal that claimed more than 1,000 lives as aftershocks and severed communications hampered rescue efforts.

“We do not yet know the scope of the damage, but this could be one of the deadliest and most devastating earthquakes since the 1934 tremor which devastated Nepal and Bihar,” said Jagan Chapagain, Asia/Pacific director of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

The United States and the European Union were among those to pledge assistance to the government of Nepal, as messages of support poured in from world leaders including China’s Xi Jinping, France’s Francois Hollande, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

The IFRC said it was extremely concerned about the fate of rural villages close to the epicentre of the quake, some 80km from the capital Kathmandu.

“Roads have been damaged or blocked by landslides and communication lines are down preventing us from reaching local Red Cross branches to get accurate information,” said Chapagain in a statement.

“We anticipate that there will be considerable destruction and loss of life.”

Other aid organisations responding to the emergency also struggled to assess the needs with communications cut off around the Himalayan nation.

“Communication is currently very difficult. Telephone lines are down and the electricity has been cut off making charging mobile phones difficult,” said Cecilia Keizer, Oxfam country director in Nepal.

“People are gathered in their thousands in open spaces and are scared as there have been several aftershocks,” she added.

French aid group Action Against Hunger (ACF) said in a statement its teams in Nepal “were on their way to the affected areas to assess the damage and the needs”.

'HEARTFELT SYMPATHIES'

Nations around world have reacted to the deadly 7.9 magnitude quake that rocked Nepal.

The United States is sending a disaster response team and has authorised an initial US$1 million (S$1.3 million) in aid to address immediate needs, the US Agency for International Development said.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the US was working closely with the government of Nepal to provide assistance.

“To the people in Nepal and the region affected by this tragedy we send our heartfelt sympathies,” he said.

“The United States stands with you during this difficult time.” The European Union also said its humanitarian experts were heading to the crisis areas.

“The full extent of the casualties and damage is still unknown but reports indicate they will likely be high, both in terms of loss of life, injuries and damage to cultural heritage,” an EU statement said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her condolences to Nepali Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and said the government stood ready to help, her office said in a statement. Merkel was “shaken by the extent of the catastrophe and the high number of victims,” it added.

Britain and Spain also pledged support and assistance, with Norway promising to provide 30 million krone (S$5.1 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 also 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.

“It’s clear from what has emerged so far that there is an urgent need for emergency shelters, food and clean drinking water, warm clothing blankets and hygiene kits,” said the group’s regional emergency manager Ram Kishan in a statement.