[KATHMANDU] Nepal ramped up efforts on Sunday to rescue people trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings after an earthquake devastated the heavily crowded Kathmandu valley, killing at least 2,400, and triggered a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest.
The Nepal government urged nations to send aid and braced for the toll to rise after rescuers overnight were hampered by strong aftershocks, blocked highways and a lack of equipment. People used their hands in many places to dig for survivors.
Authorities also scrambled to provide shelter in the capital, Kathmandu, for thousands of people who spent the night outside in freezing temperatures and patchy rain, too afraid to return to their damaged homes.
At daybreak on Sunday, people milled about in parks and streets strewn with rubble. The 7.9 magnitude quake struck at midday on Saturday at a busy time of year for the tourism-reliant country's trekking and climbing season, with an estimated 300,000 foreign tourists in the country.
The government planned to pitch tents and turn schools and other public buildings into shelters, said Rameshwor Dangal, a home ministry official. It would also re-open roads and send helicopters to rescue people.
Nepal's home ministry put the death toll at 2,400, with about 4,700 injured. At least 300 had been killed in the capital, a city of about 1 million people where homes are often old, flimsy and packed close together.
Rescue workers worked through the night using bulldozers, pick axes and shovels to free those who were trapped.
Foreign climbers and their Nepalese guides around Mount Everest were caught by the tremors and a huge avalanche.
John Reiter, speaking to CNN from Everest base camp, said dozens were critically injured but said he expected helicopters to arrive. "It's been a rough 18 hours," he said.
Hospitals across the impoverished nation of 28 million people struggled to cope with its worst quake in 81 years. They expected a fresh influx of patients on Sunday but medical supplies were running low.
Kathmandu's Bir Hospital had received 300 to 350 patients with serious injuries through Saturday, and most of them died, said paramedic Dinesh Chaudhary. He said the hospital was procuring medicines from shops outside. "There will be many more patients coming in tomorrow because only a very small part of the debris has been cleared," he said.
The earthquake, centred 50 miles (80 km) east of the second city, Pokhara, was all the more destructive for being shallow.
Rescue operations had still not begun in some remote areas.
Among the capital's landmarks destroyed in the earthquake was the 60-metre-high (100-foot) Dharahara Tower, built in 1832 for the queen of Nepal, with a viewing balcony that had been open to visitors for the last 10 years.
A jagged stump 10 metres high was all that was left of the lighthouse-like structure. As bodies were pulled from the ruins, a policeman said up to 200 people had been trapped inside.
Across the city, rescuers scrabbled through destroyed buildings, among them ancient, wooden Hindu temples. "I can see three bodies of monks trapped in the debris of a collapsed building near a monastery," Indian tourist Devyani Pant told Reuters. "We are trying to pull the bodies out and look for anyone who is trapped." Neighbouring India, where 44 people were reported killed in the quake and its aftershocks, sent military aircraft to Nepal with medical equipment and relief teams. It also said it had dispatched 285 members of its National Disaster Response Force.
In Tibet, the death toll climbed to 17, according to a tweet from China's state news agency, Xinhua.
International aid groups readied staff to go to Nepal to help provide clean water, sanitation and emergency food, while the United States, Britain and Pakistan were among countries providing search-and-rescue experts.
An Indian army mountaineering team found 18 bodies on Mount Everest, where an avalanche swept through base camp. More than 1,000 climbers had gathered there at the start of their season.
Tourism official Mohan Krishna Sapkota said it was difficult to assess deaths and damage around the world's tallest peak. "The trekkers are scattered all around the base camp and some had even trekked further up. It is almost impossible to get in touch with anyone," he said.
Romanian climber Alex Gavan tweeted that there had been a"huge earthquake then huge avalanche" at Everest base camp, forcing him to run for his life.
In a later tweet he made a desperate appeal for a helicopter to fly in and evacuate climbers who had been hurt: "Many dead. Much more badly injured. More to die if not heli asap." In the Annapurna mountain range, where scores were killed in the nation's worst trekking accident last year, many hikers were stranded after the quake, according to messages on social media, but no deaths there had been reported.
Nepal, sandwiched between India and China, has had its share of natural disasters. Its worst earthquake in 1934 killed more than 8,500 people.