Nepal earthquake: Asian countries search for stranded citizens, pledge aid

SYDNEY (AFP) - Asian countries were scrambling on Sunday to locate thousands of their nationals stranded in Nepal after a huge earthquake devastated the Himalayan nation, severing communications and transport links.

China said it is chartering flights to pick up 683 tourists that were in the country when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit near Kathmandu, reducing the capital to rubble in the worst disaster to hit the country in more than 80 years.

Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said her government had contacted more than 200 of the 549 Australians in the South Asian nation, while New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully said more than 110 nationals had been accounted for. "While there are reports of extensive loss of life, at this point there are no reports of Australian deaths," Ms Bishop said in a statement, adding that staff from the Foreign Affairs Department were travelling to Nepal to help locate other citizens.

Japan's Foreign Ministry said it has set up a liaison office to help the 1,100 of its nationals who were staying in Nepal when the quake hit on Saturday, the Jiji news agency reported.

Offers of help have poured in from governments around the world, with Japan, China, the US and European Union announcing they were sending in disaster response teams.

Australia on Sunday pledged A$5 million (S$5.21 million) in aid, while Mr McCully said New Zealand - which is still recovering from a deadly quake that hit its second-largest city Christchurch in 2011 - would send NZ$1 million (S$1.01 million).

Australians took to social media to express their fears about missing relatives and friends who were working or travelling in Nepal when the quake hit.

Australian television star Hugh Sheridan tweeted about his younger brother in Nepal: "Please. Anyone who is awake, please pray for my little brother Zachary who is on Mt Everest, I'd appreciate every prayer you have spare."

The relatives of Ms Ballantyne Forder, an Australian volunteer in Kathmandu, set up a Facebook page pleading for any information about the 20-year-old Perth woman. She later contacted her family to tell them she is safe.

Nearly 2,000 people are reported dead and more than 4,700 injured by the earthquake, which cracked roads and brought down much of the country's mobile phone network, according to the Nepalese authorities.

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