Toll rises to 18,000 in S. Asia quake

7.6-magnitude temblor flattens villages in northern Pakistan, India


BALAKOT, Pakistan -- More than 18,000 people were killed when a powerful earthquake struck northern Pakistan, a military spokesman said today, in a disaster that entombed hundreds of children in their schools, flattened a high-rise apartment building in the Pakistani capital and devastated an untold number of villages.

The 7.6-magnitude quake struck about 8:50 a.m. yesterday in the disputed territory of Kashmir, and reverberated across a swath of northern Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. The epicenter was in a mountainous region about 60 miles northeast of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan told Pakistan's Geo television network today that 17,000 of the dead were in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir. Thousands more were injured or missing. In India, the death toll was in the hundreds.

But rescue teams had yet to reach many areas, including Balakot, a town in northern Pakistan that was reduced to rubble. Survivors here said that at least 5,000 people were killed in the town.

Hundreds more were missing in the debris in Balakot, including hundreds of children buried in the wreckage of 10 schools, the survivors said. With rescuers thwarted by landslides and heavy rainfall, parents clawed through the rubble for their children.

A woman who gave her name only as Saira sat in the ruins next to her child's body. "I have lost everything," she said. "This is God's wrath."

In the town of Garhi Habibullah, residents said that about 300 bodies had been recovered from the ruins of a girls school there. Five hundred students were injured.

"Many villages have been wiped out in the earthquake-hit areas of the province," a witness, Abdul Makjeed, said by phone from Mansehra, near Garhi Habibullah.

In Islamabad, rescuers worked into the night trying to save scores of people believed trapped in the rubble of an apartment complex in an upscale district of the capital that counted foreign nationals among its residents. At least 20 people were killed and 85 others injured when one building in the Margalla Towers complex collapsed and another was severely damaged.

Soon after the quake struck, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said the country's armed forces had helicopters and C-130 transport planes ready to ship emergency relief supplies into the affected areas.

According to a Pakistani military spokesman, more than 200 military personnel in northern areas of Pakistan were reported killed in the quake. Pakistan's military has numerous bases in the region, especially in Kashmir. Both countries claim sovereignty over the Himalayan territory, and the dispute has caused two of the three wars between India and Pakistan since Britain granted the subcontinent independence in 1947.

About 300 people died in Indian-controlled areas of Kashmir, and scores of homes were damaged or destroyed in the region, said Mansoor Hussain, spokesman for India's chief minister in the territory.

More than 500 people were injured and 1,100 houses damaged or destroyed in Indian Kashmir, Hussain said by telephone from Srinagar, summer capital of India's Jammu and Kashmir state. Heavy rain complicated relief efforts in the Kashmir Valley.

But perhaps hardest hit was Pakistan's North-West Frontier province, a territory bordering Afghanistan that Afghan intelligence officials say Taliban militants have used as a base for cross-border attacks. Residents in the Mansehra area said the bases, which had been closed after a government crackdown, reopened this spring. Pakistan's government denies the allegations.

The rugged border region is considered a possible hiding place for Osama bin Laden. But senior Afghan and Pakistani officials said this year they didn't think the al-Qaida leader was in their territories.

In Islamabad, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said a joint U.S.-Pakistani airborne surveillance unit has been authorized to provide helicopters for the relief effort. The United States helped set up the Ministry of Interior Air Wing after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to conduct border surveillance in the fight against terrorists and drug traffickers.

"The U.S. military has offered assistance to their Pakistani counterparts to provide appropriate supplies and assistance for relief efforts," the embassy said in a statement on its Web site. Crocker also said he would release $100,000 at his disposal for disaster relief.

Pakistan's military said hundreds of troops were dispatched to quake-hit areas from Peshawar, the provincial capital of North-West Frontier province, where troops were also on standby in case of any unrest.

Two helicopters loaded with doctors, engineers and medicine have left Peshawar for Mansehra to coordinate relief activities in the affected areas, a military statement said. But poor visibility and bad weather were hampering rescue operations in some areas of northwest Pakistan, officials said.

Yesterday's quake was the worst to hit Pakistan in at least 20 years. A more devastating 7.7-magnitude quake struck the Indian state of Gujarat in 2001, killing nearly 20,000 people and injuring about 166,000.

Yesterday's quake was centered slightly more than six miles underground. About 500 miles away, in the Indian capital, New Delhi, the earthquake was strong enough to make buildings sway for at least a minute.

Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Syed, the elected leader of Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, tried to tour the quake zone yesterday but was forced to flee an angry crowd demanding the government deliver more emergency aid.

Mubashir Zaidi, Paul Watson and Zulfiqar Ali write for the Los Angeles Times.

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