Quake in Pakistan Kills Over 20,000

BALAKOT, Pakistan -- Villagers dug with bare hands into collapsed schools and homes Sunday in desperate searches for survivors of a huge magnitude 7.7 earthquake that struck South Asia, with Pakistan calling it the country's worst-ever disaster and appealing for urgent help.

Pakistani officials said the death toll ranged between 20,000 and 30,000. Pakistan's Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said the Pakistani death toll was 19,396 dead, and that it was expected to rise.

Tariq Mahmmod, communications minister for Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, said more than 30,000 people died in the region. "I have been informed by my department that more than 30,000 people have died in Kashmir," he told The Associated Press.

Authorities in India reported 465 deaths and more than 900 people injured, while Afghanistan reported at least four deaths.

Saturday's quake centered in Pakistani Kashmir flattened dozens of villages, killing farmers, homemakers, soldiers and schoolchildren, and triggered landslides that blocked rescuers from many devastated areas where bodies lay in streets and villagers said they felt forsaken. Many survivors in the region had spent the night without shelter in near-freezing temperatures. In India's portion of Kashmir, villagers burned wood from their own collapsed homes to stay warm.

"We are handling the worst disaster in Pakistan's history," said Major General Shaukat Sultan, Pakistan's top military spokesman.

"We do seek international assistance," Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf said. "We have enough manpower, but we need financial support."

The European Union on Sunday committed 3.6 million euros ($4.4 million) in primary emergency relief. The United States and the governments of Japan, Thailand, Germany, Britain, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Azerbaijan and Australia on Sunday pledged $4.17 million in aid. China has promised $6.2 million, according to Islamabad.

Russia sent rescuers to Pakistan on Sunday. An Ilyushin Il-76 plane carrying 30 rescuers and four emergency workers with search dogs, as well as other personnel, took off for Islamabad from an airfield near Moscow, the Emergency Situations Ministry and Foreign Ministry said. A flight carrying humanitarian aid was due to leave Monday, they said.

The Il-76 was also carrying trucks and mobile equipment that should allow the rescue team to operate independently in the disaster area for up to two weeks, Itar-Tass reported.

An eight-member UN team of top disaster coordination officials arrived in Islamabad on Sunday to plan the global body's response.

"We know that every hour counts in an earthquake of this magnitude," UN emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland said earlier Sunday in a statement from UN headquarters.

The quake and its aftershocks were felt from central Afghanistan to western Bangladesh. Destruction was clustered around Pakistani Kashmir, with damaged buildings spanning at least 400 kilometers from Jalalabad in Afghanistan to Srinagar in northern Indian territory.

Earlier on Sunday, Pakistan's interior minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao said 19,136 people had died in northwestern Pakistan -- 17,388 of them in Pakistani Kashmir -- and 42,397 had been injured. The worst-hit city was Pakistani Kashmir's capital, Muzaffarabad, where 11,000 died, Sherpao said.

Pakistani rescue teams pulled two survivors from the rubble of a collapsed apartment building in Islamabad. The survivors, a boy and a woman who were listed in stable condition, said others were trapped alive and calling for help beneath the debris, said Adil Inayat, a doctor at Islamabad's PIMS hospital.

"These people heard voices and cries during the whole night," Inayat said. At least 24 people died in the building, and dozens were injured. Officials fear dozens are still trapped.

Pakistani military helicopters ferried troops and supplies to some areas, but there was no sign of government help in Balakot, a northern town of 30,000 where the quake leveled the main bazaar, crushing shoppers and sending gas cylinders, bricks, tomatoes and onions spilling into the streets.

Injured people covered by shawls lay in the street, waiting for medical care. Residents carried bodies on wooden planks. The bodies of four children, ages 4 and 6, lay under a sheet of corrugated iron. Relatives said they were trying to find sheets to wrap the bodies.

"We don't have anything to bury them with," said a cousin, Saqib Swati.

Nearby, Faizan Farooq, a 19-year-old business administration student, stood outside the rubble of his four-story school, where at least 250 pupils were feared trapped. Dozens of villagers, some with sledgehammers but many without any tools, pulled at the debris and carried away bodies.

Farooq said he had heard children under the rubble crying for help just after the disaster.

"Now there's no sign of life," he said. "We can't do this without the army's help. Nobody has come here to help us."

The U.S. Geological Survey reported 22 aftershocks, including a magnitude 6.2 temblor, in the 24 hours after the quake.