Search for US helicopter missing in quake-hit Nepal enters 3rd day

KATHMANDU (AFP) - A major search operation resumed on Thursday for a United States military helicopter that disappeared with eight people on board while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nepal, where a second major tremor has killed dozens and brought fresh misery.

For a third-straight day, US and Nepalese military helicopters and hundreds of ground troops scoured the remote mountainous area of eastern Nepal where the chopper went missing, underscoring the huge challenge of operating in the Himalayan country.

The search operation has diverted resources urgently needed to help victims of the 7.3-magnitude quake that hit on Tuesday, triggering major landslides and bringing down buildings weakened in the first disaster on April 25.

That quake killed more than 8,000 people and destroyed nearly 300,000 homes across the impoverished country. "We began searching early today with two army helicopters. About 400 troops have been deployed for this," Mr Rajan Dahal of the Nepal Army told AFP by telephone from eastern Dolakha district where the chopper is thought to have disappeared.

With many of the worst-affected areas inaccessible by road, more than 1,400 people have been airlifted from quake-hit areas, most of them by Nepalese troops.

Home Ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal said the death toll from Tuesday's quake, which was centred 76km east of Kathmandu, had risen to 96 overnight with more than 2,500 wounded.

Many of the victims were in the mountainous district of Dolakha and in neighbouring Sindhupalchowk, and the quake also killed 17 people in northern India and one in Tibet.

The tremor came just weeks after the biggest quake to hit Nepal in 80 years and has added to the already huge challenge of getting relief to victims in far-flung areas.

The United Nations said there was an "urgent need for tents, generators and fuel supply to ensure that radio stations continue broadcasting and collecting information from affected communities".

There were several reports of landslides blocking roads in the worst-hit areas, making the task of getting relief to remote communities even more difficult.

The Nepalese government has acknowledged that it was overwhelmed by the scale of the April 25 disaster, which left many homes too dangerous to live in.

Many ministries and government departments are having to coordinate disaster relief efforts from makeshift shelters after Tuesday's quake left buildings in the main Singha Durbar government complex in Kathmandu so badly damaged they can no longer be used.

"The already weakened structure sustained severe damages in Tuesday's earthquake," Mr Kamal Bhattari, who works in the prime minister's office, told the Republica daily.

"Everybody feared to work in the building and the offices had to be shifted to open spaces."

In Kathmandu, where 11 people died on Tuesday, many traumatised survivors spent another night outdoors, afraid to return to their houses.

Scientists said Tuesday's quake was part of a chain reaction set off by the larger one that struck on April 25 in Lamjung district west of Kathmandu.

"Large earthquakes are often followed by other quakes, sometimes as large as the initial one," said Ms Carmen Solana, a volcanologist at Britain's University of Portsmouth.

"This is because the movement produced by the first quake adds extra stress on other faults and destabilises them," she told the London-based Science Media Centre.