Official Earthquake Death Toll Rises Above 600

Official Earthquake Death Toll Rises Above 600

Emergency workers in western China are struggling against freezing cold in the search for more survivors of this week's powerful earthquake that killed at least 617 people and left thousands homeless.

More than 10,000 people are injured and more than 300 others are missing in the wake of Wednesday's 6.9-magnitude quake, which toppled buildings, destroyed roads and knocked out phone and power lines in Qinghai province, which borders Tibet Autonomous Region.

Many school buildings collapsed in the disaster, leaving many students buried in the rubble. China's official Xinhua news agency says 66 students and 10 teachers were killed in the quake.

Tibetan Buddhist monks have turned out in force to help rescue efforts, although the town's main Buddhist monastery lay in ruins on a nearby hillside.

"We were the first to help when the earthquake came. We monks are here to help the people just as much as the government," said one monk, digging through rubble in the main square.

Tibetan Buddhists have often been at odds with China's ruling Communist Party, which is wary of the ties between the monasteries and Tibetan exiles. That tension could complicate rescue efforts by non-government organisations, some worry.

"They say the army is helping us here but look, it's all up to us," said Tashi, a volunteer outside the stadium who said he was trying to transfer patients to outside hospitals.

The government in Beijing has dispatched some 5,000 soldiers, medical workers and other personnel to the region, while local authorities are rushing 5,000 tents and 100,000 coats and blankets for the scores of residents forced outside into cold temperatures.

Xinhua quoted a local official in Qinghai as saying more than 85 percent of houses have collapsed in Yushu county's main town of Jiegu, known to Tibetans as Gyegu. The official, identified as Zhuohuaxia, said large cracks have appeared on buildings that are still standing.

Officials described the streets as filled with panicked people, many of them bleeding from their injuries. Hospitals have been overwhelmed by the injured, with both doctors and supplies lacking.

A crack in a reservoir in the disaster area is causing concern, with workers racing to prevent a potential flood.

The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama offered prayers for those who died while Pope Benedict called for "solidarity" with the victims.

The United States said it is "ready to assist" if China requests international aid.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is to visit the area late Thursday. He and President Hu Jintao have called for an all-out rescue effort to reach the disaster zone on the Tibetan plateau known as the "Roof of the World".

Some information for this report was provided by AP, Reuters and AFP.