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Nepal quake toll tops 5,000 as aid reaches epicenter area

PASLANG, Nepal (AP) – Aid reached a hilly district near the epicenter of Nepal’s earthquake for the first time Wednesday, four days after the quake struck and as the death toll from the disaster passed the 5,000 mark.

But it will still take time for the food and other supplies to reach survivors in remote communities who have been cut off by landslides, warned said Geoff Pinnock, a World Food Program emergencies officer.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” said Pinnock from the village of Majuwa, 20 kilometers (16 miles) downhill from Gorkha town, a staging area for relief efforts to areas worst-hit by Saturday’s magnitude-7.8 earthquake.

Nearby, five cargo trucks filled with rice, cooking oil and sugar stood on a grassy field fringed with banana and acacia trees beneath the soaring Himalayas, waiting for a helicopter carry the supplies to remote, quake-hit villages.

Soon, the U.N. food agency was expected to deliver shipments of high-energy food biscuits to be sent out to areas without enough water for cooking, Pinnock said. The first aid shipments had reached Dhading district, just east of Gorhka, he said.

Nepalese police said Wednesday the death toll from the quake had reached 4,989. Another 18 were killed on the slopes of Mount Everest, while 61 died in neighboring India, and China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported 25 dead in Tibet.

The disaster also injured more than 10,000, police said, and rendered thousands more homeless. The U.N. says the disaster has affected 8.1 million people – more than a fourth of Nepal’s population of 27.8 million – and that 1.4 million needed food assistance.

“Under normal circumstances, a government would have the capacity to respond to maybe 10, or 20, or 30,000 people in need. But if you’re looking at 8 million as we are here, you need a bit of time to scale everything up,” he said.

In the village of Paslang, three kilometers (1.8 miles) above Gorkha, there was almost nothing left but enormous piles of broken red bricks and heaps of mud and dust.

One of those piles was once Bhoj Kumar Thapa’s home, where his pregnant wife pushed their 5-year-old daughter to safety in a last, desperate act before it collapsed and killed her during Saturday’s earthquake.

Thapa and others in Paslang were still waiting Tuesday for the government to deliver food, tents – any kind of aid – to this poor mountain village near the epicenter of the quake that killed more than 4,700 people, injured over 8,000 and left tens of thousands homeless.

“When I got home, there was nothing,” said Thapa, an army soldier. “Everything was broken. My wife – she was dead.”

He was put on leave from his army unit to mourn, one of the few Nepalese soldiers not deployed in the country’s massive rescue and recovery operation. But instead of sadness, there is anger.

“Only the other villagers who have also lost their homes are helping me. But we get nothing from the government,” Thapa said.

An official came, took some pictures and left – without delivering anything to the village of about 300 people northwest of the capital of Kathmandu, he said.

“I get angry, but what can I do? I am also working for the government,” Thapa said. “I went to ask the police if they could at least send some men to help us salvage our things, but they said they have no one to send.”

The villagers have no idea when they might get help and are still sleeping together in the mud and sharing whatever scraps of food they can pull from beneath their ruined buildings. Three people in the hamlet have died.

Officials and foreign aid workers who have rushed to Nepal following the are struggling against stormy weather, poor roads and a shortage of manpower and funds to get assistance to the needy. On Tuesday, the district managed to coordinate 26 helicopter trips to remote villages to evacuate 30 injured people before a major downpour halted the effort.

“We need 15,000 plastic tarps alone. We cannot buy that number,” said Mohan Pokhran, a district disaster management committee member. Only 50 volunteer army and police officers are distributing food and aid for thousands in the immediate vicinity, he said.

“We don’t have nearly enough of anything,” Pokhran said.

In Kathmandu Wednesday, thousands of people were lining up at bus stations, hoping to reach their hometowns in rural areas. Some have had little news of family and loved ones since Saturday’s quake. Others are scared of staying close to the epicenter, northwest of Kathmandu.

“I am hoping to get on a bus, any bus heading out of Kathmandu. I am too scared to be staying in Kathmandu,” said Raja Gurung, who wanted to get to his home in western Nepal. “The house near my rented apartment collapsed. It was horrible. I have not gone indoors in many days. I would rather leave than a live a life of fear in Kathmandu.”

More tragedy stuck Tuesday: A mudslide and avalanche struck near the village of Ghodatabela and 250 people were feared missing, district official Gautam Rimal said. Heavy snow had been falling, and the ground may have been loosened by the quake.

But there also was also some heartening news: French rescuers freed a man from the ruins of a three-story Kathmandu hotel, near the main bus station. The man, identified as Rishi Khanal, was conscious and taken to a hospital; no other information about him was released.

While many across Nepal are opting to sleep outdoors for fear of the constant aftershocks, those in Paslang have no choice because almost no buildings are left standing. At night, survivors huddle together against the cold, rain and mosquitoes, and wait until dawn.

Tilak Bahadur Rana, a farmer, still has a tin roof over his head but the cold rain leaks through.

“In any case, I can’t sleep. I am too stressed. I worry about how I will feed my family,” he said.

Some in Paslang have seen sacks of food being flown by helicopter to remote regions reachable only by air, without stopping. The arrival in the village of a diesel generator Tuesday, brought by “a nice charity man” from a foreign aid group that no one could identify, brought moments of much-needed elation as dozens crowded around to charge their cellphones on four attached power sockets.

Sitting in the mud and sharing tea made over an open fire with his wife and children, Rana confessed he was losing heart.

“Because of this earthquake, the whole village is destroyed. We need food,” he said. “We need a place to sleep, or compensation for all we have lost.”


Associated Press writers Todd Pitman and Binaj Gurubacharya in Kathmandu and Cara Anna at the United Nations contributed to this report.