Himalayan Earthquake Kills 63

An earthquake has rocked a vast area of north-eastern India and Himalayan states, killing at least 63 people.

The epicentre of Sunday’s 6.9-magnitude earthquake was an isolated area of the border between India’s Sikkim state and Nepal, and there were fears on Monday that the toll could rise as reports filtered in from distant towns and villages.

The heavy rains and low cloud grounded helicopters and Indian relief and rescue teams trying to access the Sikkim state capital Gangtok were blocked by landslides on the only viable highway.

‘Our rescue teams are stuck in that corridor,’ National Disaster Response Force spokesman Surendra Ahlawat said on Monday.

‘The conditions are terrible but road crews are doing their best.’

More than 5000 army troops were deployed in the area to try to restore overland links with Gangtok and further north towards the nearby epicentre.

‘The biggest challenge now is to get the rescue teams to the affected areas,’ said Sikkim Information Minister CB Karki.

The death toll in the state stood at 35, with five people killed in Gangtok and the others dying in building collapses and landslides in outlying areas, including two soldiers on road-clearing duty.

‘There’s a good chance the toll could rise as rescue teams begin to access the more remote areas,’ said G. Anandan, chief of the central emergency control room in Gangtok.

Tremors were felt more than 1000 kilometres away in New Delhi to the west and in Bangladesh to the east.

In Nepal, police said a motorcyclist and his eight-year-old daughter were among three killed when a wall crumbled at the British embassy compound in Kathmandu, 270km west of the epicentre.

Five others were killed in separate incidents in eastern Nepal.

A budget debate in Nepal’s parliament stopped for 15 minutes when MPs leapt to their feet and fled the chamber as the entire building shook.

More than 100 people were injured by mudslides, falling debris and collapsing buildings in Gangtok, where thousands spent the night in the streets after repeated aftershocks sparked further panic.

‘People are still very worried and tense. Everything is shut down and nearly everyone is still out in the street because they’re scared of another quake,’ said Gangtok resident Indira Singh.

The shockwaves cut off electricity to most of Sikkim, further hampering rescue efforts as telephone landlines were interrupted and panicked mobile-phone users swamped local networks.

On the road to Gangtok, vehicles were forced to stop every few kilometres to clear rocks, mudslides and downed power lines.

‘We just had a landslide right here,’ said village shopkeeper Karma Mantor.

‘We are still in a state of panic. Nobody knows what is really happening.’

The quake was felt across a wide region including the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan after it struck on Sunday evening, according to the US Geological Survey.

Its epicentre was just over 60km north-west of Gangtok, at a relatively shallow depth of 19.7km.

The Press Trust of India said police rescued 15 foreign tourists in the north of Sikkim, a popular destination for trekkers.

Thirteen other people died in India, including one killed in a stampede by panicked residents in Bihar state and four who were buried when a house fell down near Darjeeling in West Bengal.

China’s official Xinhua news agency said seven people had been killed in southern Tibet, near the border with Sikkim.

Nepalese police spokesman Binod Singh said hundreds of homes were damaged in the country’s east, where rescue workers faced the same problems as their Indian counterparts with rains and mudslides blocking the only highway to the area.

India’s seven north-eastern states, joined to the rest of the country by a narrow sliver of land known as the ‘chicken’s neck’, are located in an area of frequent seismic activity.

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