GUWAHATI, India (Reuters) - Rescuers dug through mudslides on roads to isolated Himalayan villages on Monday in search of survivors after a 6.9 magnitude earthquake killed 63 people in India, Nepal and the Chinese region of Tibet.
Soldiers and police pulled victims from rubble as night closed in and the number of victims climbed to 35 in the “Shangri-la” northeastern Indian state of Sikkim, the epicenter of Sunday night’s quake felt more than miles away in Delhi.
Air Force helicopters took supplies to affected areas, ringed by some of the world’s highest peaks. Some mountain passes blocked by landslides were reopened and planes made two food airdrops, the home secretary said.
“The earthquake has loosened the hill-faces, and when it rains, it causes landslides. So the situation is still very dangerous,” said Deepak Pandey, spokesman for the Indo-Tibetan Border police.
“We have rescued more than 400 people since last night,” Pandey said. The rugged north of the state at the edge of the Tibetan plateau was worst hit.
It may take days for the final number of casualties to be confirmed but border police said they did not think the death toll would be on a massive scale.
At least seven died in Bihar state, south of Sikkim, while six died in the Indian state of West Bengal.
People in Sikkim’s main city, Gangtok, sat on roadsides under umbrellas in the heavy rain and prepared for another chilly night — reluctant to go home for fear of aftershocks.
“We are scared of another earthquake like last night, we have no place to stay, our house is damaged, and we can only pray to God now,” Sushma Sharma, mother of three children in Gangtok, told Reuters.
It has been raining for four straight days in parts of Sikkim. The temperature in the quake zone was about 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit) and will drop overnight.
“Let’s pray that the weather gets better,” said army spokesman Om Singh.
Shops, businesses and offices were closed in Gangtok and neighboring areas, another resident said. Many towns remained without electricity. Water supplies were scarce because of burst pipes and telephone communication was patchy.
For centuries a rarely visited Buddhist kingdom known for spectacular mountains and glacial lakes, Sikkim joined India in 1975. With 600,000 residents, it is the most sparsely populated state and borders Bhutan, Tibet in China and Nepal.
The state’s economy boomed in recent years as it opened up to tourism and trade with China. Residents say landslides are a threat to hastily built new buildings in its mountain towns.
The quake was felt in five countries including Bangladesh and Buddhist kingdom Bhutan.
Outside India, at least eight people died in Nepal, three of them when a wall at the British Embassy in Kathmandu collapsed on a car and a motorcycle. Seven died and hundreds were made homeless in Tibet, Chinese news agency Xinhua said.
More than a thousand Chinese soldiers were sent to help rescue efforts near the border.
Army officers and border police stationed near the epicenter of the quake in the north of the state, which has a large military deployment close to the Chinese border, said they were hopeful the death toll will not rise much more.
“The loss of life has not been much,” said Ranjit Sinha, director general of Indo-Tibetan Border Police, whose foot patrols sent radio reports of casualties as they reached isolated villages.
Several hundred rescue workers and medics deployed by New Delhi were expected to arrive in Sikkim in the evening after soldiers cleared a landslide blocking the road from the nearest airport, 100 km (60 miles) away.
Sinha said many people were made homeless by the disaster.
“Even if casualties are low, there is likely to be a need for humanitarian assistance for affected civilians whose homes have been destroyed and who need food and shelter,” said an official from the U.N.’s disaster management team in New Delhi.
More than a thousand people fled damaged homes to government shelters in Gangtok. More than 100 people were injured, while hundreds of tourists, Indian and foreign, were stranded for hours on the main road out of the state to West Bengal in the south.
The quake shook buildings as far away as New Delhi in India and Bangladesh.
Several earthquakes have hit north and east India this year, but none has caused major damage or injuries.
In 2001, a devastating earthquake in the western state of Gujarat killed at least 19,700 people and caused damage in neighboring Pakistan. In 1934, an estimated 10,000 people died when a quake devastated Nepal and India’s Bihar state.
Reporting by Biswajyoti Das in Guwahati, additional reporting by Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu, Nita Bhalla, Arup Roychoudhury and Annie Banerji in New Delhi and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Matthias Williams and Sugita Katyal