Battle To Save Burma Quake Victims

Rescuers battled on Saturday to reach thousands of survivors in remote areas of Myanmar after an earthquake tore up roads and reduced hundreds of homes to rubble, leaving 75 people dead.

The powerful 6.8 magnitude quake struck in the east of the country near the borders with Thailand and Laos late on Thursday and was felt as far away as the Vietnamese capital Hanoi.

The towns of Tarlay, Mong Lin and Tachileik in Myanmar’s Shan state appeared to have been most severely affected by the quake, which flattened hundreds of houses and toppled monasteries and government buildings.

Rare images from the area on Thai television and exiled media showed roads riven with huge cracks, bridges destroyed and homes reduced to piles of timber.

Strong aftershocks continued into Saturday.

A motorcycle taxi driver in Tachileik told AFP that things were “calm” in the town. “We were frightened in the beginning, but now we are trying to get back to normal,” he said.

The charity World Vision said around 15,000 people could have been affected in the worst-hit areas.

It is sending in first aid kits and tarpaulins to give emergency shelter for up to 2,500 families.

“This is an immediate concern as even last night there was rain,” said Chris Herink, Myanmar country director in Yangon.

He told AFP that rescuers were transporting supplies along the road into Tarlay, but a broken bridge was disrupting access to Tachileik, although the government was working to repair the structure.

A Myanmar official said there had been no official increase in the toll from Friday’s figure of 74. One woman was also killed in Thailand.

“There might be some places we still cannot reach because of the communication and transportation problems. The death toll could rise,” the official added.

The region affected was already difficult to reach before the quake, access to the area by foreigners is restricted and the military dominated government tends to keep a tight grip on information.

The ruling junta was widely criticised for refusing foreign assistance for weeks after cyclone Nargis wrought devastation across the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, leaving more than 138,000 people either killed or missing.

But Herink said his organisation, which is working in the affected areas with the Myanmar Red Cross and UNICEF, had found the government had been “pro-actively seeking our assistance and providing information to us”.

“At least from our experience we have been pleased with the level of coordination and responsiveness so far,” he said.

The social welfare relief and resettlement minister left for Tachileik from the capital Naypyidaw on Saturday “to give assistance to those affected areas”, the Myanmar official said.

But one Tachileik resident, posting anonymously on an Internet forum, expressed frustration with the authorities, describing the town as “ruined”.

“I hope there is not another earthquake because our situation is not very good as we cannot get any concrete assistance from the authorities.”

Many people were getting their news from Thai radio.

Sai Thein Aung, a Shan Nationalities Democratic Party member of parliament for Tachileik, said he had only just been able to get in contact with the area, although most telephone lines are still down.

“We never expected this kind of natural disaster and we have not much experience in the past with this kind of thing. That is why I worry for my people,” he said.

The United States expressed its condolences.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by this tragedy,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.