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India quake toll could be around 100,000-minister

India quake toll could be around 100,000-minister

India's defence minister said on Tuesday that the death toll from India's worst earthquake could be as high as 100,000 and the number of injured may be double that.

But officials in the western state of Gujarat, the area worst hit by Friday's quake, questioned his projected toll as too high and a spokesman for Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said that it was too early to tell what the final toll might be.

"If one talks in terms of loss of human life, then one is looking at perhaps 100,000 people at the moment," Defence Minister George Fernandes told British Broadcasting Corp television.

Previous estimates had put the death toll at around 20,000.

The Home Minister of Gujarat, Haren Pandya, disputed the toll put forward by Fernandes and said the state government still estimated the toll at between 15,000 and 20,000.

"Our estimate is based on bodies recovered, missing people, survey of people still possibly buried under the debris and looking at village records," he told Reuters.

H.K. Dua, information adviser to Vajpayee, told Reuters that the prime minister had clearly said there could be no proper estimate of the death toll right away.

"These are just guesses. Bodies are under the rubble. Nobody can give the figure unless the bodies are counted," Dua said. "Certainly it is massive. Nobody disputes the 20,000 figure. It is bound to go up."

Fernandes said that Bhuj, an ancient town near the epicentre of the quake which registered 7.9 on the Richter scale, had been devasted. "The old town doesn't exist anymore," he added.

The earthquake struck with brutal speed last Friday in the prosperous industrial state of Gujarat, flattening whole villages and toppling city high rises.

HOPE FADING FAST

Rescue workers on Monday plucked two boys and a 90-year-old woman alive from the rubble in Bhuj but hope for more signs of life was fast fading.

Thousands of homeless spent another night in the open around bonfires, some with white bundles beside them containing bodies of relatives and friends.

Families could be seen burning their dead on makeshift funeral pyres along the roadsides.

Eight crematoriums in the town operated non-stop throughout Monday and giant piles of wood could be seen outside one.

"We're working flat out to burn the bodies," crematorium worker Jagdish Bhatt said.

Mild tremors continued to hit parts of western India on Monday evening.

"If after five days you survive it is due to exceptional luck, a cavity large enough and access to water," said Mike Thomas, a member of a British specialist rescue team.

Some 20,000 soldiers are working throughout the state to help other rescue workers, some from overseas.

But with many villages not having received any medical attention many hours after the quake, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee admitted on Monday that rescue efforts were too slow.

RELIEF TOO SLOW

"Relief work needs to be speeded up," he told reporters in a whirlwind tour of the devastated Kutch region.

Commenting on the magnitude of the catastrophe, Vajpayee said: "Without seeing it with one's own eyes, it is difficult to imagine."

One woman, Kokila Bhavsar, told Reuters that her 76-year-old father was alive for seven hours after the quake but died two hours before his body was taken out.

"He was fine," she said, standing dazed in front of the building which had become a family tomb in which she had lost her father, mother, sister, brother, sister-in-law and niece.

The World Bank announced it would release US$300 million in immediate assistance for relief efforts after India said it would ask the international lending agency for US$1.0 billion to help with reconstruction.

Vajpayee announced federal aid of 5.0 billion rupees for Gujarat. And regional arch-rival Pakistan said it would send a planeload of relief supplies.

Britain pledged 10 million pounds to fund emergency relief work. Many other countries have pledged aid.

Anxious to help friends and family back home, Gujaratis and other Indian-Americans living in the United States poured tens of thousands of dollars into relief funds for earthquake victims.


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