By Brian Rhoads and Benjamin Kang Lim
BEIJING (Reuters) - A devastating earthquake shook western China Monday, killing at least 257 people, injuring 1,000 and flattening homes, schools and other buildings near the Silk Road oasis of Kashgar.
People's Liberation Army soldiers and rescue workers combed the rubble for injured and dead from the mid-morning quake, the worst to strike the Xinjiang region in five decades, measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale.
Hours after the quake, aftershocks rattled nerves, forcing villagers outdoors in near-freezing temperatures -- too afraid to venture into their homes for fear of further damage.
Relatives of victims in the predominantly Muslim region began funeral rites for the dead as officials in the regional capital Urumqi organized shipments of relief supplies.
"It was very frightening. The earthquake happened when I was riding my bicycle to the office. I've never experienced this before," Abuliti, an official at a branch of the People's Bank of China in Bachu County, said by telephone.
"We are working in the office now, our office building suffered little damage and nobody died in our bank, but some one-story houses collapsed," he said.
The earthquake -- according to Xinhua news agency the deadliest to hit Xinjiang since the Communists took power in 1949 -- rocked the dry desert region bordering Central Asian states at 10.03 a.m. (0203 GMT), officials said.
"It's rare for so many people to have died in an earthquake here," Zhang Yong, a section director of the Xinjiang Seismological Bureau, told Reuters. The epicenter was in sparsely populated Jiashi, 100 miles east of Kashgar. Witnesses and officials said Bachu county, further east, and its 370,000 residents suffered the most.
NARROW ESCAPE, CHAOS
Zhou Mingcheng, a private businessman who runs a flour mill in stricken Arlagen village in Bachu county, and his family escaped from their collapsing home in the nick of time.
"We were sleeping at the time, and it was still dark. We ran out immediately when it began to shake," Zhou said.
The sun rises late in Xinjiang, which is thousands of kilometers (miles) west of Beijing though they remain on the same single Chinese time zone.
Two of the four rooms in his home became rubble, but Zhou considered himself lucky -- more than 100 people in his village of 1,000 were feared dead.
"Lots of rooms here collapsed. There is no electricity. Lots of people are outside now and no one dares stay at home." Officials with the local seismological bureaus in Kashgar and Urumqi said the toll had risen to 257 by 5 p.m. local time.
Funerals for victims, many of them members of the Muslim Uighur ethnic group, had already begun in line with a tradition of burying family members on the same day of death.
"Some people are holding funerals in accordance with Uighur tradition, while rescue workers are attending to the injured," said a Kashgar official who would only give his surname, Zhang.
"The place is a complete chaos," he said.
Many victims were students at a Bachu county school that was flattened, said Suyu, deputy director of the county civil affairs bureau. The quake also leveled a one-story clinic, he said.
Officials in Urumqi and Bachu began sending grain, milk and blankets to five hardest-hit villages and townships in the county, where temperatures were hovering only a few degrees above freezing. In Beijing, Secretary of State Colin Powell offered his condolences to Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
"I was sorry to learn just in the last few minutes of the earthquake in western China and the loss of life. I want to express my regrets to the Chinese people," Powell said.
The ground trembled as aftershocks shook the region for much of the day.
"Aftershocks happen one after another now. The biggest one was around 5.0 on the Richter scale," said an official from the seismological bureau in Kashgar.
"We could feel the quake very strongly. Some of the things on the wall fell to the ground in our office," he said.
Earthquakes are common in China and regularly rattle the vast Tibetan plateau including Xinjiang, and Qinghai province and Tibet, but few have been so deadly.
An earthquake in January 1997 killed 50 in Xinjiang. Nine people were killed in a quake there in April that year.
A quake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale devastated Tangshan near China's capital Beijing on July 27, 1976, killing an estimated 250,000 people.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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