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CHINA - EARTHQUAKE

At least 12,000 dead, scores buried in Chinese quake

4 min

Government sources said on Tuesday that 18,645 people were buried under debris in the city of Miangyang, near the epicentre of the earthquake that rocked China's Sichuan province on Monday. The official death toll nears 12,000. (Story: A. Dupuis)

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The death toll from China's most devastating earthquake in three decades has jumped to at least 11,921, a top disaster official said on Tuesday, as storms hampered rescuers in the most devastated areas. 

State media reports indicated that the number of dead from the 7.9 magnitude quake was likely to soar. 

Xinhua news agency said 18,645 people were buried under debris in the single city of Miangyang, and 10,000 more in the Mianzhu area, near the epicentre of the earthquake that rocked China's Sichuan province on Monday. 

A strong aftershock rocked Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, on Tuesday afternoon, one of more than 1,950 over the past day and keeping nervous residents on edge.

"Hundreds of people sleep in makeshift tents on the streets," said FRANCE 24's correspondent Henry Morton in Chengdu. "It will be another 24 hours before the quake is completely finished and they can return to their buildings."

He added that families were sharing food and that there was a "good community spirit".

Bad weather hampering relief efforts

Heavy storms and wrecked roads hampered efforts to reach hardest-hit areas. The combined tremor and heavy rain have increased the risk of mudslides in the region. 

"It has been raining for three or four hours now," Morton said on Tuesday afternoon (GMT+2). "That is going to seriously hamper rescue efforts for today." Forecasts for the next few days leave little hope for improvement. 

Damage from Monday's quake left the Wenchuan area, about 100km from Chengdu, completely cut off. 

State television showed highways buckled and caved in from the quake and massive rockslides lining the roads. 

Bodies in the street

In Dujiangyan - about midway between Chengdu and the epicentre - there was devastation, with buildings reduced to rubble and bodies in the streets. 

Troops and ambulances thronged the streets, and military trucks able to do heavy lifting had arrived. But many residents simply stood beside their wrecked homes, cradling possessions in their arms. Others huddled in relief tents under heavy rain. 

"At least 60 or 70 old people lived there, as well as children," said a hospital worker surnamed Huo, gesturing to a building in ruins. Mattresses and household objects could be seen poking through the rubble. "How could they survive that?" she asked. 

Rescuers had worked frantically through the night, pulling bodies from homes, schools, factories and hospitals demolished by the quake, which rolled from Sichuan across much of China and was felt as far away as Bangkok and Hanoi. 

In Dujiangyan, about 900 teenagers were buried under a collapsed three-storey school building. Premier Wen bowed three times in grief before some of the first 50 bodies pulled out, Xinhua reported. 

"Not one minute can be wasted," said Wen, a trained geologist. "One minute, one second could mean a child's life." 

Frantic relatives tried to push past a line of soldiers surrounding the school, desperate for news of their children. 

"We're still pulling out people alive, but many, many have died," said one medical worker.

At a second school in Dujiangyan, fewer than 100 of 420 students survived, Xinhua reported.


Authorities "showing a different face"

China's Communist Party leadership announced that coping with the quake's aftermath and ensuring that it did not threaten social stability were the government's priorities. 

Chinese newspapers and television channels have kept the population informed with news from the disaster area. "There are hourly updates", Morton said.  

But bloggers wondered about the quality of construction and why so many school buildings were reduced to rubble.  

China on Tuesday welcomed offers of international aid and said it was moved by the show of support. 

According to FRANCE 24's international affairs specialist David Crossan, the disaster also offers the Chinese authorities a chance to "enjoy some sympathy". 

He said that in the lead up to next August's Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government was aware that everyone was scrutinising their response. 

"This is an opportunity for them to show a different face," he said, adding that the earthquake had "pushed Tibet out of the headlines". 

Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, accused by Beijing of involvement in deadly riots in the Tibetan capital in March, expressed his concern and offered his condolences to quake victims. 

The Sichuan quake was the worst to hit China since the 1976 Tangshan tremor in northeastern China where up to 300,000 died. Then, unlike now, the Communist Party kept a tight lid on information about the extent of the disaster. 

Neighbouring areas of Sichuan were also affected, with 213 reported dead in the northwestern province of Gansu, 92 in Shaanxi province and school collapses in the municipality of Chongqing.

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