Chinese leader says quake death toll may top 80,000
Monday, 26 May 2008

AFP, YINGXIU - China warned Saturday that the death toll from its worst earthquake in a generation could climb past 80,000, as visiting UN chief Ban Ki-moon pledged the world's support.

The UN secretary general travelled to Yingxiu, the epicentre of the 8.0-magnitude earthquake which turned this former town of 10,000 people in southwestern Sichuan prefecture into rubble.

"My heart was filled with sadness by all this devastation," Ban told journalists after the visit.

"At the same time I saw myself the leadership of the Chinese ministers who are working hard to overcome this tragedy with the strong spirit of self-help and cooperation, resilience and courage. I was very much moved," he said.

"If we work hard we can overcome this. The whole world stands behind you and supports you," Ban said.

Ban met with Premier Wen Jiabao as nearby workers in protective suits sprayed disinfectant to curb disease and the stench of corpses.

Wen said the death toll from the tragedy had crossed 60,000, a jump of more than 4,000 from a day earlier.

Fatalities "may further climb to a level of 70,000, 80,000 or more," said the premier, who held hands with Ban at their outdoor meeting.

Later, the national disaster headquarters, at a press conference in Beijing, put the exact number of earthquake dead at 60,560. Another 26,221 were missing, it said.

China has already said that over 5.47 million people have been made homeless by the quake and more than 11 million people are expected to be housed in camps as dangerous areas in the quake zone are evacuated.

Ban was on a brief stop in between trips to neighbouring Myanmar, where one day earlier he persuaded the ruling military leaders to accept an international relief effort for survivors of the cyclone which struck there three weeks ago.

While Myanmar's junta has come under fierce criticism for its response to the disaster, China accepted international rescue teams and doctors, although it waited until several days after the disaster.

China has been eager since the quake to ease tensions with other countries. Protests targeting the upcoming Beijing Olympics flared earlier this year due to criticism of China's handling of demonstrations in Tibet.

"I would like to sincerely thank the international community, the leaders of the world, the governments and people of every nation for their concern and the materials and the help they have offered," Wen told journalists.

"In this disaster, we have maintained a policy of openness (because) this earthquake disaster is not only a disaster for the Chinese people, but it is a disaster for humanity."

Russia on Saturday sent eight planeloads of aid including tents, blankets and field hospitals, amid a visit to Beijing by Russia's new President Dmitry Medvedev.

The US Army has flown in three cargo planes laden with tonnes of life-saving supplies to southwestern Chengdu in the past week, according to US officials.

A French team that can provide medical care was flying in Sunday to the quake zone, while the German Red Cross has set up a mobile hospital to treat the overflowing number of injured in the town of Dujiangyan.

"German aid is all the more precious because the hospital in Dujiangyan was partially destroyed in the quake and can't operate as normal," said the hospital's deputy director, Fu Tang.

In a boost for the relief effort, China announced Saturday the main railway connecting Sichuan province's capital Chengdu with the central city of Baoji had reopened after 12 days.

The government has said it would take up to three years to reconstruct Sichuan, where one in five people in quake-hit areas has been made homeless.

Aid was only just reaching worst-hit areas like the town Hanwang, where bodies were lying under the rubble.

"We waited three days for help and still there are people in there," said a man surnamed Guo, gesturing to a pile of bricks, concrete and glass that was one of 12 apartment blocks here.

"Why did we have to wait for so long in the first place? And still no one comes," he said.

An immediate danger is the risk of disease. Authorities say they urgently need more tents and more medication, particularly antibiotics, to prevent the outbreak of illnesses in the coming summer months.

For many Chinese, feelings of horror over the quake turned to anger after they saw that hundreds of schools had been destroyed, even though neighbouring structures remained standing.

The state-run Beijing News said some 9,000 teachers or schoolchildren were among the dead and missing from the quake, making up about 12 percent of the total.

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