China

Rescuers comb rubble for China quake survivors

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By Jonathan Ansfield
URUMQI, China (Reuters) - Rescue workers with search dogs combed the rubble of flattened villages in near freezing weather in northwest China on Tuesday, in hopes of finding survivors from an earthquake that killed at least 265 people.

Monday's quake, the deadliest to hit the Xinjiang region since the Communists took power in 1949, also injured 4,000 people, said officials in Bachu county, the worst-hit area about 1,000 km (620 miles) from the regional capital, Urumqi.

Bachu officials told Reuters at least 265 people had died, and more than 2,000 seriously injured were taken to hospital in neighbouring counties and in the nearby Silk Road oasis of Kashgar.

The Urumqi Evening News reported 50,000 were left homeless or otherwise hit by the disaster. More than 10,000 homes, schools and other buildings had collapsed across eight counties, while 40,000 others suffered damage, China's ministry of civil affairs said in a facsimile message.

Aftershocks rattled survivors and more than 5,000 soldiers, militia and police joined the round-the-clock rescue effort. They sifted rubble with bare hands, spades and pickaxes while crews used motion detectors and dogs to hunt survivors, officials told Reuters.

"They haven't had any sleep," said one Bachu county government official. "The hands of some People's Liberation Army soldiers were bleeding from digging," he added.

No foreign nationals were known to have died, the official Xinhua news agency quoted local officials as saying.

MAO, MARX LONELY

Photos issued by state media showed schools and homes had been reduced to piles of bricks and debris. In one, only one wall of a classroom remained standing.

Its lonely blackboard and portraits of late Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong and Karl Marx, who founded communism in the 19th century, stared out over a sea of rubble.

Villagers piled floral quilts in the streets for the thousands left homeless. Many stayed out of their homes, fearing another aftershock could bring the roof down, witnesses said.

A town square became a makeshift medical clinic where the injured received treatment, some with intravenous drips, one photo in the Urumqi newspaper showed.

Others spent the night in makeshift tents, close to bonfires or bundled in quilts or plastic sheets against freezing temperatures, well away from wobbly structures.

Injured wrapped in blankets were helped onto beds of pickup trucks for transport to hospital.

The more seriously injured were being treated in overflowing hospitals in neighbouring counties and Kashgar after the quake rocked the dry desert region bordering Central Asian states at 10:03 a.m. (0203 GMT) on Monday.

Grain, milk and relief goods were shipped to the five hardest-hit villages and townships in Bachu, officials said.

The civil affairs ministry said regional authorities had sent 2,500 tents and 1,500 quilts to affected areas. The ministry had given eight million yuan ($1 million) in disaster relief, state media said.

ORDERS FROM ABOVE

Vice Premier Wen Jiabao ordered swift distribution of relief material.

"Providing food, drinking water, clothing, shelter and medical attention are top priorities," Xinhua said, quoting a directive from Wen and other Chinese leaders.

"We must ensure victims do not suffer from hunger and cold, and prevent the spread of disease," said Wen, tipped to become premier at an annual parliamentary session in March.

The Kashgar government ordered bakeries to bake 80,000 loaves of "nan", or traditional Uighur flat bread, for earthquake victims, one rescue worker told Reuters.

Families held funerals for victims in the predominantly Muslim region, many of them members of the Uighur ethnic group, following a tradition of burying people on the same day of death.

In Qiongkuer Qiake village alone, 22 primary and secondary school students were killed and 40 injured, a local education official said.

"The death toll would have been much higher had the students not been attending a flag-raising ceremony," the official said.

More than 11,000 farm animals were killed as barns and stalls collapsed, state media said.

Several aftershocks rocked the area on Tuesday, the strongest measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale.

Earthquakes are common in China, regularly shaking the vast and sparsely populated Tibetan plateau including Xinjiang, Qinghai province and Tibet, but few have been so deadly.

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. ($1=8.277 Yuan)

(With additional reporting by Judy Hua and Niu Shuping)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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