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Africa quake toll rises as homeless add to aid crisis

People walk past rubble created by an earthquake on February 4, 2008 in Cyangugu, 250km south of the Rwandan capital Kigali. Officials and hospital sources in Kigali said that the strong earthquake shook the African Great Lakes region on Sunday, killied at least 38 people in Rwanda and six in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Kigali (AFP) Feb 3, 2008
The death toll from a series of earthquakes that hit central Africa rose Monday to 44 as a major aid operation for hundreds of injured and thousands of homeless gathered pace amid new aftershocks.

At least 38 people were killed in Rwanda's Western Province and six around the Democratic Republic of Congo city of Bukavu, which was near one epicentre, authorities said, while more than 450 were hurt.

Rwandan police spokesman Willy Marcel Higiro said latest reports gave 30 dead and 112 hospitalised in Rusizi district and eight killed and 180 in hospital in Nyamasheke.

"Many have been left homeless," he said. "We are still counting them."

Sunday's quakes, the biggest of which measured 6.0 on the open-ended Richter scale, caused huge communications problems after they struck close together along the western Rift Valley fault, cracking open the walls of houses and buildings.

They caught many people in church for Sunday services, trapping them under rubble when the buildings collapsed.

Ten people were killed in this way in Rusizi district, where the majority of people are Roman Catholics.

"We felt heavy shaking. Part of the roof timbers fell on the women's side, and I was hit on the chest and head," survivor Dative Mukanyhita, aged 20, told AFP from Gihundwe hospital.

The 10-year-old son of Salima Mukamugwere, a Muslim, was trampled underfoot as he fled the Koranic school at Kamende.

"I took him home but he had difficulty breathing. I called the Red Cross who came to fetch him," his mother said.

Many of the injured have fractured skulls and other broken limbs suffered as walls fell in or people rushed to get out of stricken buildings.

The Rwandan government sent extra medical teams to Rusizi, national radio reported, while in the neighbouring DR Congo the government said its priority was to help the homeless. Humanitarian groups said thousands had lost their homes.

"There were some small aftershocks during the night. But fortunately most people followed appeals to sleep outdoors and there were no new victims," Bukavu mayor Guillaume Bonga told AFP.

"Our priority now is to evaluate the needs of the victims. There are hundreds of homeless," he added, appealing for plastic covers, tents and medicines.

The World Health Organisation said it had delivered 2.5 tonnes of initial emergency medical aid to the DR Congo authorities.

The epicentre for the biggest quake was about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Bukavu, the capital of Sud Kivu province. There are about 300,000 people in the city and the mayor said nearly every house had suffered some kind of damage.

The UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo has joined the relief effort after the quakes.

Extra police and military patrols have been ordered in Bukavu to deter looting, officials said.

A powerful 6.8 magnitude quake rocked the region in December 2005 but, while it is prone to seismic activity, it has mostly escaped major quake damage in recent years.

earlier related report
Quake sent heavens crashing down on Rwandan congregation
The earth shook and the Rwandan congregation, who had been in the middle of prayers, looked upward to see the heavy wooden frame of their church come crashing down.

At least 10 people were killed in the church in the small town of Shangi, one of the worst hit districts from the two big earthquakes that struck Central Africa on Sunday.

The biggest quake struck as many churches were packed for Sunday services and several collapsed under the force. At least 43 people were killed and more than 450 injured in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"We felt heavy shaking. Part of the roof timbers fell on the women's side, and I was hit on the chest and head," said 20-year-old Dative Mukanyhita who was inside the Shangi church.

She just remembers the cries, the incomprehension and the clamour of the wooden beams engulfing the congregation. Her brother, seated in the men's section, left unscathed. "Praise be to God", added the girl, whose swollen face is partially covered by bandages.

"It was the parishioners who got me out of the rubble. Then the Red Cross arrived," she said.

Like dozens of the injured, Dative was brought the two-hour journey to the Gihundwe general hospital in Cyangugu -- a lakeside city near the border with the DR Congo.

Roman Catholics are the dominant religion in the region and most were in mass on Sunday morning when quake measuring 6.0 on the open-ended Richter scale hit.

Salima Mukamugwere, 42, sat at the bedside of her 10-year-old son Idie will be saved. Idie was at Kamende Koranic school, near Cyangugu, where most of the city's Muslim children attend. He was trampled by the crowd as it rushed out of the school, fearing the building would collapse.

"I took him home but he had difficulty breathing. I called the Red Cross who came to fetch him. I have hope, because the care is free. And the government promised that if he is not okay, he will be evacuated to Kigali," she said.

Dozens of patients have already been evacuated by army helicopters to the general hospital in Kigali, according to Prince Byadunia, a doctor from Gihundwe hospital.

"Here, we do not keep those who are seriously injured," said Byadunia. Ten people who could not be moved died at the hospital on Sunday.

Two officers and the provincial governor are discreetly present in the hospital corridors, reassuring patients who see them as a sign the government is mobilising.

The relief effort has been well-supervised and organised. The Red Cross, which distributed emergency kits including soap and blankets, was waiting Monday for the authorities to double-check the list of beneficiaries so they could hand out more relief.

In the streets, businesses and banks have re-opened and people were clearing debris from the front of their homes. A lot say there have been more deaths in Rwanda than in neighbouring Congo, because there are more permanent houses in the former.

"Here, we have a state that helps us," said a passerby, who thinks the damage will disappear much more quickly in Cyangugu than in nearby Bukavu in the DR Congo, where authorities on Monday were still evaluating damage and the victims' needs.

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Guangzhou, China (AFP) Feb 4, 2008
China's chief meteorologist admitted Monday the country was not prepared for the severe winter weather that has stranded millions of people struggling to get home for Lunar New Year.

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