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Time running out for China quake survivors PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 17 May 2008

AFP, MIANYANG - Cries for help echoed from under the rubble of shattered communities Friday as China warned time was running out to save survivors of an earthquake that has claimed an estimated 50,000 lives.

The first foreign rescue teams were allowed into the disaster zone to join the frantic -- and increasingly grim -- search for survivors among the huge mounds of concrete and metal that were once homes, schools and factories.

Bringing specialist equipment and sniffer dogs, they mark the first time Beijing has accepted foreign professionals for a disaster rescue and relief operation.

"Quake relief work has entered into the most crucial phase," President Hu Jintao said after flying to Mianyang, one of the cities worst hit in Monday's 7.9-magnitude quake.

"The challenge is still severe, the task is still arduous and the time is pressing," he said, quoted by China's state-run Xinhua news agency.

The scale of the quake -- which rattled buildings across China and in cities as far away as Thailand and Vietnam -- has become clearer after teams hiked to remote towns cut off by landslides.

The confirmed death toll stood late Friday at 22,069, state media said, with officials in worst-hit Sichuan province saying another 14,000 remained buried.

But state television, quoting figures from national quake relief headquarters, said the government estimates the death toll at more than 50,000.

Another 4.8 million people have been left homeless by the disaster, officials in Sichuan said.

Amid the desolation there have been small miracles -- a child was pulled alive Friday out of a ruined school in Beichuan, nearly 100 hours after the quake struck.

Xinhua said rescuers could hear more voices calling for help.

"The possibility is very great that we can rescue the buried," one aid worker was quoted as saying. "Giving up is excluded from our dictionary."

In Yinghua town, an AFP reporter witnessed rescuers weighing up whether a man trapped under tottering rubble would have to have his leg amputated in order to be freed.

"He's alive. I just saw him. It seems it's the right leg they may have to cut off. I just want him to live," said his distraught daughter Liu Yuan, 23.

But increasingly, rescuers have been dragging out bloodied corpses, bringing a new problem of disposal in communities that have almost nothing left.

In Mianyang, 10,000 homeless people have squeezed into a sports stadium, where they anxiously scanned updated lists of new arrivals in fading hope of a reunion with loved ones.

After initially rebuffing offers of foreign aid teams, China has agreed to rescuers from Japan, Russia, Singapore and South Korea, and has issued an appeal for tens of thousands of shovels, hammers and cranes.

A Japanese team, the first to arrive, headed into a town where hundreds of families are reported buried, and a second Japanese team with sniffer dogs was en route.

South Korea is sending 44 experts and Singapore a team of 55 who helped in the aftermath of quakes in Indonesia, Pakistan and after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

They are bringing sniffer dogs, fibre-optic scopes, life detector systems and hydraulic cutters and spreaders.

Entire towns have been flattened by the quake, mountainsides sheared off, roads split in two, and countless thousands of buildings toppled or in danger of collapse.

Agonisingly, close to 7,000 of them have been schools, where entire floors crashed down on each other and buried children in their classrooms.

Responding to public anger, China's housing ministry launched a probe into why so many crumbled, promising severe punishment for anyone responsible for shoddy construction.

The military, which has been spearheading rescue efforts, has scaled up its deployment, sending in extra transport planes, helicopters and troops.

They have been air-dropping tens of thousands of food packets, clothes and blankets, clearing roads, repairing bridges, sifting through the wreckage and ferrying the injured to hospital.

Rescue teams have also headed in from Taiwan -- which China considers to be part of its territory -- and Hong Kong.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the tremor was the "most destructive" the country had known since the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949 -- more powerful than the 1976 Tangshan disaster, which claimed 240,000 lives.

On Friday an aftershock just 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the epicentre of Monday's quake triggered landslides which cut off roads and buried vehicles, making the rescue effort even more challenging.

Separately, the government was reported to be drawing up evacuation plans amid concerns that dams could collapse if rain persists.

The risk is especially acute in areas such as Wenchuan and Beichuan counties near the epicentre, state media said.

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