Twelve feared dead in Burma earthquake

A strong earthquake struck northern Burma today, causing a bridge and a gold mine to collapse, damaging several ancient Buddhist pagodas and leaving as many as 12 people feared dead.

No casualties or major damage were reported in the nearest major population centre, the country's second-biggest city of Mandalay, about 72 miles south of the quake's epicentre near the town of Shwebo.

Smaller towns closer to the quake's epicentre were worse-hit.

An official from Burma's Meteorological Department said the magnitude-6.8 quake struck at 7.42am local time.

The area surrounding the epicentre is underdeveloped, and casualty reports were coming in bit by bit, mostly from local media. Burma has a poor official disaster response system, despite having lost upwards of 140,000 people to a devastating cyclone in 2008.

The region is a centre for mining of minerals and gemstones, and several mines were reported to have collapsed.

The biggest single death toll was reported by a local administrative officer in Sintku township - on the Irrawaddy River near the quake's epicentre - who said six people had died there and another 11 were injured.

He said some of the dead were miners who were killed when a gold mine collapsed.

According to news reports, several people died when a bridge under construction across the Irrawaddy River collapsed east of Shwebo. The bridge linked the town of Sintku with Kyaukmyaung on the west bank.

The website of Weekly Eleven magazine said four people were killed and 25 injured when the bridge, which was 80% finished, fell. The local government announced a toll of two dead and 16 injured. All of the victims appeared to be workers.

However, a Shwebo police officer said just one person was confirmed dead from the bridge's collapse, while five were still unaccounted for.

Weekly Eleven also said two monasteries in Kyaukmyaung collapsed, killing two people.

A report on state television MRTV about eight hours after the quake and two aftershocks struck said three people had died, 29 were injured and four were missing in several locations.

"This is the worst earthquake I felt in my entire life," Soe Soe, a 52-year-old Shwebo resident, said.

She said that the huge concrete gate of a local monastery collapsed and that several sculptures from another pagoda in the town were damaged.

Other damage was reported in Mogok, a major gem-mining area just east of the quake's epicentre. Temples were damaged there, as were some abandoned mines.

State television reported that more than a dozen pagodas and stupas in five townships were damaged, and many of them had their so-called "umbrellas" atop the dome-shaped structures crash down.

The uppermost parts of the domes usually contain encased relics of the Buddha and small Buddha images, and sometimes jewels. Damage to them is taken as an especially bad omen.

Sein Win said police were guarding a damaged stupa in Mogok and its exposed relics.

The quake was felt in Bangkok, the capital of neighbouring Thailand. It comes just a week ahead of a scheduled visit to Burma by US president Barack Obama. He will be the first US president to visit the one-time pariah nation, which is emerging from decades of military rule.

The disaster is the second to strike the area in three days. On Friday, a tanker train derailed about 80 miles north of Shwebo, and at least 25 people were killed when overturned carriages burst into flames as they were trying to skim fuel from them.

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