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Tuesday, September 21, 1999 Published at 06:32 GMT 07:32 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Hundreds die in Taiwan quake

Firefighters battle to rescue guests at a Taipei hotel

A huge rescue operation is under way in Taiwan following a powerful earthquake that struck the island in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The BBC's Francesca Kasteliz: "It was Taiwan's most powerful earthquake for over 60 years"
The death toll has been rising rapidly hour by hour. Latest official estimates put the number of dead more than 800.

A spokesman at the government's disaster centre said there were almost 3,000 injured and at least 1,200 trapped in the debris of collapsed buildings.

The quake, estimated at 7.6 on the Richter Scale, is believed to be the strongest to have hit the island this century.

Most northern parts of Taiwan felt the effects of the quake, which brought down at least three buildings in the capital Taipei.

[ image:  ]
The tremor is thought to have been even more powerful than last month's devastating quake in Turkey, which killed 15,000 and measured 7.4 on the Richter Scale.

Many of the victims were in the central Nantou county, where the quake's epicentre was located, and in the neighbouring Taichung county.

The BBC's Duncan Hewitt: ''There are warnings of possible aftershocks''
"The death toll continues to rise and we continue to discover more people trapped in the collapsed buildings," said the government spokesman. "It is still very difficult to estimate the extent of the damage," he added.

Warnings of tsunamis - tidal waves which often follow earthquakes - were issued for Taiwan, Japan and other islands in the region.


The quake struck at 0147 on Tuesday (1747 GMT Monday). The epicentre is believed to be 12.5km (7.8 miles) west of Nantou, a seismically active area - about 145km (90 miles) from the capital.

[ image: A survivor is pulled from a collapsed building]
A survivor is pulled from a collapsed building
The authorities have warned that there could be aftershocks for two weeks.

Power has been lost in large parts of northern and central Taiwan.

But the full extent of the damage, especially in remote and mountainous areas, is not yet known.

Businessman Michael Bayley in Taipei: "People are buried in buildings"
President Lee Teng-hui urged people to stay calm and promised swift help for those affected by the devastation.

"I ask the public to stay calm and the government will do its best to help the people recover from the trauma and the damage," Mr Lee said.

Taiwan's stock and currency markets will remain closed on Tuesday.

Message from Beijing

Chinese President Jiang Zemin offered his condolences to the victims of the quake, saying that Beijing was ready to help, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.

"We are willing to offer any possible assistance to alleviate the losses," Jiang said, adding that the quake also "hurt the hearts of the people on the mainland, as the Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Straits are as closely linked as flesh and blood," Xinhua said.

Hotel collapses

In Taipei, rescuers spent the night trying to pull survivors from the rubble of the partially collapsed 78-room Sungshan Hotel.

ICRT Radio Taipei journalist Derek McElheron: "It shook the whole island"
Unconfirmed reports said two schools had also collapsed, one with students trapped inside.

The quake wrecked the bottom of the building containing the hotel, setting the top listing to one side. Smoke poured from fires raging in several rooms.

At least 60 people are still feared trapped inside. Forty nine people have been sent to hospital and another 11 people were evacuated uninjured.

Witnesses in Taipei spoke of continuing aftershocks, buildings collapsing, objects falling off apartment blocks and people fleeing their homes.

Survivors gathered half naked in the street, bewildered and confused. Others clung to the balconies of what had been their homes.


In Taichung city, the mayor said: "This is one of the strongest earthquakes I have felt in my life. Many buildings collapsed and there is damage to roads and other infrastructure".

Severe damage was also reported in the town of Puli near the quake's epicentre, but details were sketchy.

An explosion was reported at the town's main business, a rice wine distillery, and scores of buildings suffered damage, the Broadcasting Corporation of China said.

Monday's quake was Taiwan's deadliest since a 7.4 magnitude tremor hit the island in 1935, killing 3,276 people.

Taiwan is hit by dozens of earthquakes each year, but most strike in the Pacific Ocean east of the island and rarely cause damage.

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