/ 18 May 2008

Strong aftershock causes more concern in China

Police tried to stop anguished relatives from streaming into one of the worst-affected areas of China’s massive earthquake on Sunday, as another strong aftershock hit the area and the death toll rose to nearly 32 500.

Hundreds of aftershocks have rattled Sichuan province following last Monday’s devastating 7,9-magnitude quake, and officials are concerned the tremors could bring down more unstable buildings and rupture already leaky dams.

Six days after the main quake hit, the overall death toll stands at nearly 32 500, state news agency Xinhua reported, with a further 220 000 injured.

Early on Sunday, a 6,1-magnitude tremor caused thousands to flee swaying buildings in the provincial capital, Chengdu, about 200km south of the new tremor’s epicentre. The official Xinhua news agency said there was no immediate word of additional damage or casualties in the area.

But concerns over the safety of nuclear facilities, including China’s chief nuclear weapons research lab, close to the affected zone were allayed. Xinhua reported that they were ”all in a safe and controllable state”.

In Beichuan, hard hit by the quake and which many people fled on Saturday following warnings a dam may collapse, worried relatives quarrelled with police who tried to prevent them entering the area, citing safety reasons.

”I’ve travelled all this way, and I don’t know where my father is,” said Chen Shiquan, who had come back from the neighbouring province of Qinghai where he works to look for this father, Chen Xiaoqu. ”To let me get this far and then not let me in is too cruel,” he added.

Thousands of people have fled the Beichuan area amid fears a lake could burst its banks, hampering rescue efforts after the deadliest earthquake in more than three decades.

At least three barrier lakes, formed after rocks blocked a river, had burst their banks but caused no casualties, Xinhua said. ”There has been no bursting of reservoirs in the quake-hit areas,” the report added.

Fu Xingyue, looking for his daughter who was supposed to turn six the day after the quake happened, brushed off safety concerns. ”I don’t think the dam is a big threat, and anyway, there’s nothing I can do. I have to keep searching,” said Fu, who works as a truck driver and has spent days desperately searching though rubble and shouting out his daughter’s name.

More found alive

Rescue work has been complicated by bad weather, treacherous terrain and hundreds of aftershocks. But victims are still being pulled alive from the rubble.

In Yingxiu, close to the epicentre of Monday’s quake, at least 56 people were rescued over the past 24 hours, Xinhua said on Sunday.

On Sunday morning, rescuers pulled a man out of a collapsed hospital in Beichuan, but had to amputate his legs first, Xinhua reported. ”The survivor, in sober mind, was carefully carried out by firefighters amid strong applause,” it added.

An estimated 10 000 people or so are still trapped under the rubble, but most are believed dead.

Offers of help have flooded in and rescue teams with sniffer dogs and specialised equipment have arrived from Japan, Russia, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. Donations from home and abroad have topped six billion yuan ($858-million). A United States team arrived in Chengdu on Sunday to join in relief efforts.

Yet Fujiya Koji, head of the Japanese rescue team in Sichuan, said that chances of finding more survivors were low. ”We haven’t been able to find any survivors yet. Generally by this stage the likelihood of survival is low. They say they have been finding some in Beichuan and we’ll certainly keep trying,” he added.

Statistics from past earthquakes show survivors have been found up to nearly a fortnight after being trapped.

China has said it expects the final death toll from the earthquake to exceed 50 000. About 4,8-million people have lost their homes and the days are numbered in which survivors can be found.

Premier Wen Jiabao said the quake was ”the biggest and most destructive” since before the Communist revolution of 1949 and the quick response had helped reduce casualties. — Reuters