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China quake toll crosses 13,000

Some 30,000 troops will join those already digging through rubble in the earthquake-ravaged southwestern province of Sichuan. YouTube videos on quake | Toll rises | See pics

world Updated: May 14, 2008 11:19 IST
Ben Blanchard

China poured more troops into the earthquake-ravaged province of Sichuan on Wednesday to quicken a search for survivors as time ran out for thousands of people still buried under rubble and mud. <b1>

Some 30,000 troops will join 20,000 already digging through rubble in the southwestern province, where Monday's 7.8-magnitude earthquake crumpled homes, schools and hospitals, Xinhua news agency reported, citing a Ministry of Defence spokesman.

Across the region there were clusters of weary survivors and rescuers pulling at tangled chunks of buildings and peering into crevices for people who might still be alive.

In the Sichuan city of Mianyang, people roamed a sports ground housing the homeless, holding cardboard signs with the names of their relatives in hopes of being reunited or getting information about them. Most were from nearby rural Beichuan county, one of the worst-hit areas.

The national death toll from the quake has climbed past 13,000 and is likely to rise steeply after media said 19,000 people were buried in rubble in Mianyang alone. <b2>

Attention also turned to survivors themselves, many of whom are without food and shelter in pouring rain.

"I've had nothing to eat since last night. I've only been given some bread and a bottle of water for my child," said Bai Chenchu, one of thousands camped out at the sports ground.

One 15-year-old boy had come there from Beichuan, where he said everything had been destroyed.

"I'm wearing everything I own," said the boy, Xi Dongli.

A near-overwrought Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was shown on state television scrambling over the remains of a collapsed school and using a bullhorn to urge on rescuers.

"If there is a glimmer of hope, then put everything into rescuing," Xinhua quoted him as telling local officials.

The quake, the worst to hit China since 1976 when up to 300,000 died, has muffled upbeat government propaganda three months ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games.

It has also quelled criticism from abroad over recent unrest in Tibet, with images of the human tragedy and heroic rescue efforts spurring offers of aid and an outpouring of sympathy.

China's stock market has weakened following Monday's earthquake partly on fears that it could add to inflation, which is already at a 12-year high, but economists say the added price pressures are unlikely to be lasting or widespread.

The quake's epicentre, north of the provincial capital, Chengdu, has little manufacturing. And while the region accounts for more than 9 percent of China's rice output, the earthquake largely devastated a steep and rainy area that is mainly known for oranges, peppercorn and vegetables.

Metals plants near Chongqing, which account for about 4.5 percent of China's aluminium capacity, saw little damage. Power plants have resumed normal operations and Petrochina has restarted a major oil pipeline after a one-day stoppage.

Shelter

Premier Wen was to tour Beichuan county on Wednesday, where at least 1,000 students and teachers were buried under a seven-storey school. Rows of apartment blocks there collapsed.

"Beichuan has just disappeared. There's nothing left," said Li Changqing, a salesman in Mianyang.

Beichuan county alone was in urgent need of 50,000 tents, 200,000 blankets and 300,000 coats, as well as drinking water and medicine, Xinhua said.

At the Mianyang sports ground, local volunteers who cycled in were distributing rice and water. One man handing out boiled eggs was mobbed, and police tried to keep order among desperate survivors.

Central authorities have ordered stricken areas to ensure food supplies and price stability. But some Chinese news reports described price rices and shortages in quake-hit areas.

The depth of destruction in many towns across the mountainous area suggested searchers would find many more bodies than survivors among the toppled buildings.

Rain has frustrated rescuers' efforts to get to some areas and more rain is forecast for coming days.

"Everything became very difficult last night with the rain. There are a lot of people with no place to go," said Kate Janis, a programme director with the aid organisation Mercy Corps.

State media reported devastation in villages near the epicentre in Wenchuan, a remote county cut off by landslides about 100 km northwest of Chengdu. About 60,000 people were unaccounted for across Wenchuan, authorities said.

In Wenchuan's Yingxiu town, only 2,300 of its 10,000 residents were accounted for, Xinhua reported.

Amid the overwhelming grief, there were also moments of relief when survivors were found. In Sichuan's Mianzhu, about 500 people were pulled out alive from crushed buildings.

A group of 31 British tourists visiting a panda reserve in the stricken area were unharmed, China's Foreign Ministry said.