Earthquake in Pakistan creates island as it destroys mud-built homes

Rescue teams struggle to reach isolated villages in Pakistan's least developed province and help survivors of worst such disaster since 2005

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 September, 2013, 10:05am

Pakistani rescuers yesterday struggled to reach victims of a big earthquake that killed at least 327 people and toppled thousands of mud-built homes when it hit the country's southwest with enough force to create a new island.

The 7.7-magnitude quake struck on Tuesday afternoon in Baluchistan province's Awaran district, a dirt-poor expanse of land roughly the size of Wales.

Awaran deputy commissioner Rasheed Gogazai said 285 bodies had been recovered in the district, with a further 42 found in the neighbouring Kech district.

The toll is expected to rise as rescue teams reach more villages in the remote area, which has been shaken by more than a dozen aftershocks.

The quake is the worst in Pakistan since 2005, when about 75,000 people were killed in the country's north.

Six districts - Awaran, Kech, Gwadar, Panjgur, Chaghi and Khuzdar - and a total population of more than 300,000 were affected by Tuesday's quake.

Television footage showed collapsed houses, caved-in roofs and people sitting in the open air outside their homes, the rubble of mud and bricks scattered around them.

Video: Death toll in Pakistan earthquake jumps to 328

Journalist Mohammad Shabir described scenes of grief and chaos in villages, saying survivors were digging rows of graves and picking through the debris.

"As far as the human eye can see, all the houses here have been flattened," he said from Awaran, adding that rescue teams were distributing supplies to survivors.

The quake struck as Pakistan was still mourning the deaths of more than 80 Christians in a suicide bomb attack on Sunday.

Baluchistan government spokesman Jan Muhammad Buledi said rescue teams were recovering bodies but the priority was moving the injured to hospitals - a difficult task in a desolate area with minimal infrastructure.

"We are seriously lacking medical facilities and there is no space to treat injured people in the local hospitals," he said.

"We are trying to shift seriously injured people to Karachi through helicopters and others to the neighbouring districts."

The Pakistan army has sent 100 medical staff and 1,000 troops to the area to help with rescue efforts and has established a medical centre in one of the worst-affected villages, Tarteej. The Pakistan navy sent a ship carrying relief supplies to Gwadar, close to the Iranian border, and aircraft to ferry injured to Karachi and Ormara, a Baluchistan naval base.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang offered emergency aid to Pakistan and sent a message of condolence to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The scale of the territory involved is daunting. Awaran's population is scattered over an area of more than 21,000 square kilometres.

Baluchistan makes up about 45 per cent of Pakistan, but is the country's least populated and least developed province. On top of the difficult terrain, the area is rife with separatist and Islamist militants as well as bandits.

More than 60,000 people live within 50 kilometres of the epicentre, according to the UN disaster agency, mostly in easily collapsible mud homes.

Abdul Rasheed Baluch, a senior official in Awaran, said teams had worked through the night to try to retrieve bodies and survivors from the rubble.

"Around 90 per cent of houses in the district have been destroyed. Almost all the mud houses have collapsed," he said.

Tremors were felt on Tuesday as far away as New Delhi and even Dubai in the Gulf, while people in the Indian city of Ahmedabad near the border with Pakistan ran into the streets in panic. Office workers in Pakistan's largest city Karachi rushed out of their buildings.

The quake caused a new island to appear about 220 metres off the coast at Gwadar, officials said, with astonished locals rushing to take a look.

"It looked very very strange to me and also a bit scary because suddenly a huge thing has emerged from the water," Muhammad Rustam said.

The National Institute of Oceanography has sent a team to survey the island, which stands about 20 metres high.

A spokesman for the National Disaster Management Authoriy said the island would not survive long because sea waves would eventually break it down.

"This is not a permanent structure, just a body of mud," Kamran Zia said. "It will disappear over time."

Experts said a similar small island appeared at the same place in the sea after a major quake in 1945 but disappeared some time after.

Additional reporting by Reuters, Xinhua