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China quake toll could reach 50,000; daunting recovery for millions affected

LUOSHUI, China - Troops dug burial pits in this quake-shattered town and black smoke poured from crematorium chimneys elsewhere in central China as priorities began shifting Thursday from the hunt for survivors to dealing with the dead. Officials said the final toll could more than double to 50,000.


LUOSHUI, China - Troops dug burial pits in this quake-shattered town and black smoke poured from crematorium chimneys elsewhere in central China as priorities began shifting Thursday from the hunt for survivors to dealing with the dead. Officials said the final toll could more than double to 50,000.

As the massive military-led recovery operation inched farther into regions cut off by Monday's quake, the government sought to enlist the public's help with an appeal for everything from hammers to cranes and, in a turnabout, began accepting foreign aid missions, the first from regional rival Japan.

Millions of survivors left homeless or too terrified to go indoors faced their fourth night under tarpaulins, tents or nothing at all as workers patched roads and cleared debris to reach more outlying towns in the disaster zone.

On Friday, Chinese President Hu Jintao flew to Sichuan to support victims and express "appreciation to the public and cadres in the disaster zone," the official Xinhua News Agency said.

State media said that rescuers had finally reached all 58 counties and townships severely damaged.

Health officials said there have been no outbreaks of disease so far, with workers rushing to inoculate survivors against disease, supply them with drinking water, and find ways to dispose of an overwhelming number of corpses.

"There are still bodies in the hills, and pits are being dug to bury them," said Zhao Xiaoli, a nurse in the ruined town of Hanwang. "There's no way to bring them down. It's too dangerous."

But the ministry said on its website that to prevent disease, bodies should be cleaned on the spot and buried as soon as possible.

Troops in the town of Luoshui in a quake-ravaged area used a mechanical shovel to dig a pit on a hilltop. Two bodies wrapped in white sheets lay beside it. Down the hill sat four mounds of lime.

In a sign of nervousness, 50 troops lined the road outside Luoshui. Five farmers watched them dig the burial pit, after performing brief funerary rites. Local police detained an Associated Press reporter and photographer who took photos of the scene, holding them in a government compound for 3 1/2 hours before releasing them without explanation.

Across the quake zone in Dujiangyan, troops in face masks collected corpses and loaded them onto a flatbed truck. Thick black smoke streamed from the twin chimneys of the town's crematorium.

Fears about damage to a major dam in the quake zone appeared to ease. The Zipingpu dam had reportedly suffered cracks from the disaster, but there was no repair work or extra security at the dam when it was reached Thursday by an AP photographer, indicating the threat to the structure had likely passed.

The emergency headquarters of the State Council, China's cabinet, said the confirmed death toll had reached 19,509 - up more than 4,500 from the day before. The council said deaths could rise to 50,000, state media reported.

The provincial government said more than 12,300 remained buried and another 102,100 were injured in Sichuan, where the quake was centred.

Public criticism grew over the number of children killed or missing because their school buildings were destroyed in the quake. Education and housing officials took questions online from angry Chinese citizens. The government also said it would investigate why so many school buildings collapsed and severely punish anyone responsible for shoddy construction.

Amazing survival stories did emerge, and were seized on by Chinese media whose blanket coverage has been dominated by images of carnage.

On Friday, rescuers pulled a student to safety after being trapped for 80 hours in the debris of a school in Beichuan in northern Sichuan, Xinhua said. Weak yells for help could still be heard from the collapsed building and rescuers hoped to find more students, the agency said.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who has been in the quake zone since Monday, urged those helping the injured to keep up their efforts. Repeating a phrase that has become a government mantra this week, Vice-Health Minister Gao Qiang said every effort would be made to find survivors.

"We will never give up hope," Gao told reporters in Beijing. "For every thread of hope, our efforts will increase a hundredfold. We will never give up."

With more than 130,000 soldiers and police mobilized in the relief effort, roads were cleared Thursday to two key areas that took the brunt of the quake, with workers making it to Wenchuan at the epicentre and also through to Beichuan county, the Xinhua reported. Communication cables were also reconnected to Wenchuan.

Power was restored to most of Sichuan for the first time since the quake, although Beichuan county remained without electricity, Xinhua said.

Even though aftershocks had mostly abated, the risk of secondary damage remained. China's Ministry of Land and Resources warned heavy rains - forecast for the next few days - would likely set off new landslides in the mountainous disaster zone, where many workers were busy extracting victims and recovering bodies.

In Dujiangyan, on the road between the provincial capital of Chengdu and the epicentre, a dozen bodies lay on a sidewalk as police and militia pulverized rubble with cranes and back hoes. The bodies were later lifted onto a flatbed truck, joining some half-dozen corpses.

At the crematorium, some grieving relatives were rushed through funeral rites by harried workers. Scores of bodies lay on concrete in a waiting area - outnumbering the handful of chapels usually used in funerals.

Thick black smoke streamed from the crematorium's pair of chimneys as families cleaned and dressed the dead in funeral clothes, including fresh socks and sneakers for children.

In an appeal posted on its website, the Ministry of Information Industry called on the Chinese to donate rescue equipment including hammers, shovels, demolition tools and rubber boats - 100 cranes were also needed, it said.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has also issued an emergency appeal for medical help, food, water and tents.

After initially refusing offers of foreign aid workers, China welcomed a Japanese rescue team. Made up of firefighters, police, coast guard and aid officials, the first half of the team arrived in Beijing on Thursday and would head to the disaster area Friday, Xinhua said.

 
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