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Nepal earthquake: Aid reaches hungry survivors near epicentre

The first supplies of food aid began reaching remote, earthquake-shattered mountain villages in Nepal on Wednesday, while thousands clamoured to board buses out of Kathmandu, either to check on rural relatives or for fear of spending another night in the damaged capital.

Tens of thousands left homeless, death toll now over 5,000

Rojina Chetri, 8, who was injured during Saturday's earthquake, is comforted by a relative as she lies on a bed at a hospital in Kathmandu. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters )

The first supplies of food aid began reaching remote, earthquake-shattered mountain villages in Nepal on Wednesday, while thousands clamoured to board buses out of Kathmandu, either to check on rural relatives or for fear of spending yet another night in the damaged capital.

Frustration over the slow delivery of humanitarian aid boiled over in a protest in the city, with about 200 people facing off with police and blocking traffic.

The protest was comparatively small and no demonstrators were detained. But it reflected growing anger over bottlenecks that delayed much-needed relief four days after the powerful earthquake that killed more than 5,000 people, injured twice that many and left tens of thousands homeless. Police, meanwhile, arrested dozens of people on suspicion of looting or causing panic by spreading rumours of another big quake.

Helicopters finally brought food, temporary shelter and other aid to hamlets north of Kathmandu in the mountainous Gorkha District near the epicentre of Saturday's 7.8 magnitude quake. Entire clusters of homes there were reduced to piles of stone and splintered wood. Women greeted the delivery with repeated cries of "We are hungry!"

While the death toll in the village of Gumda was low — only five people were killed and 20 were injured among 1,300 residents — most had lost their homes and desperately needed temporary shelter, along with the 40-kilogram sacks of rice that were delivered Wednesday. Adding to residents' misery was the rain that has fallen periodically since the quake and hampered helicopter aid flights.

Death toll tops 5,000

The UN World Food Program warned that it will take time for food and other supplies to reach more remote communities that have been cut off by landslides.

"More helicopters, more personnel and certainly more relief supplies, including medical teams, shelter, tents, water and sanitation and food, are obviously needed," said the program's Geoff Pinnock, who was co-ordinating the flights.

With more than eight million Nepalese affected by the earthquake, including 1.4 million who need immediate food assistance, Pinnock said the effort would continue for months.

Police said the official death toll in Nepal had reached 5,266 as of late Wednesday. That figure did not include the 19 people killed at Mount Everest — five foreign climbers and 14 Nepalese Sherpa guides — when the quake unleashed an avalanche at base camp.

Stories of recovery, aid and hardship in Nepal 4:33

At least 210 foreign trekkers and residents stranded in the Lantang area north of Kathmandu had been rescued, government administrator Gautam Rimal said. The area, which borders Tibet, is popular with tourists.

CBC News correspondent Margaret Evans spent the morning in the centre of Kathmandu at Durbar Square, a place of ancient palaces devastated by the quake.

"Huge human chain gangs [are] going on there as people try to get these mounds of rubble down," Evans said. "They're passing bricks and planks to each other."

"At this particular site, they are not having any hope left of finding survivors from the quake, but there are a number of bodies buried there and they'll try and recover them," she said. 

'I am hoping to get on a bus'

In Kathmandu, where most buildings were spared complete collapse, many residents — fearing aftershocks — continued to camp in parks and other open spaces.

But people were starting to leave tent cities like those in Kathmandu's Tudikhel area. Anop Bhattachan and more than two dozen relatives have been sleeping on the field since Saturday, but he said they now want to get out of the city.

Nepal military personnel throw a box of relief supplies onto a truck at the district office in Gorkha. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

Thousands waited at bus stations in Kathmandu, hoping to reach their hometowns in rural areas. Some wanted to check on the fate of family and loved ones in the quake, while others were fearful of more aftershocks in the city.

"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 live a life of fear in Kathmandu."

'We need to feed them' 

Despite Wednesday's small protest, there were signs that life was inching back to normal in the capital. Banks opened for a few hours and refilled their ATMs with cash, some shops reopened and vendors returned to the streets.

Even though Nabin and Laxmi Shrestha remained frightened about aftershocks, the husband and wife have reopened their tea shop.

"I'm scared, but people are hungry. We need to feed them," Laxmi Shrestha said.

The latest figures cited in a UN release say 70,000 homes were destroyed and 530,000 were damaged by the quakes and aftershocks.

A man who was freed after being trapped for 82 hours in a collapsed hotel gave details of his ordeal, saying he drank his own urine to survive.

"I had some hope, but by yesterday I'd given up," Rishi Khanal told The Associated Press from his hospital bed Wednesday. "My nails went all white and my lips cracked ... I was sure no one was coming for me. I was certain I was going to die."

The 27-year-old Khanal, whose foot was crushed under the debris, said he was surrounded by bodies and kept banging on the rubble until a French rescue team pulled him out.

"I am thankful," he said.

Aid arriving but more needed

The UN has launched a $415-million US appeal for Nepal as aid starts to flow into the country. 

Planes carrying food and other supplies have been steadily arriving at Kathmandu's small airport, but the aid distribution remains fairly chaotic, with Nepalese officials having difficulty directing the flow of emergency supplies.

Amid an influx of foreign aid and rescue teams into Nepal, a Canadian Forces transport plane carrying relief supplies and an advance crew from a disaster-assistance team landed late Wednesday afternoon at Kathmandu airport . The plane then carried Canadians and others out of the country to New Delhi.

A second Canadian plane is expected to land on Thursday.

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      The World Health Organization, which is working with the government to co-ordinate the health response, said Wednesday that it was establishing an early warning system to help track disease in affected areas.

      A WHO official also said that although there are bodies that haven't been properly disposed of, "they pose little risk to public health." 

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      with files from CBC, The Canadian Press

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