BEIJING - China issued a rare public appeal Thursday for rescue equipment as the government struggled to cope with this week's deadly earthquake. Rescue workers broke through key roads to the epicentre in the race to find survivors, as the death toll soared to more than 19,500.

More than 72 hours after the quake rattled central China, rescuers appeared to shift from poring through downed buildings for survivors to the grim duty of searching for bodies - with 10 million directly affected by Monday's temblor.

As their operations continued, the official death toll rose above 19,500 in Sichuan province alone where Monday's quake was centred, the regional government said Thursday, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The figure was up from nearly 15,000 on Wednesday.

With some roads cleared, rescue workers were able to move heavy equipment into the worst-affected areas for the first time. Previously, soldiers riding to isolated mountain villages on helicopters and small boats had been forced to dig for survivors with their hands.

In Luoshui town - on the road to an industrial zone in Shifang city where two chemical plants collapsed, burying hundreds of people - troops used a mechanical shovel to dig a pit on a hilltop to bury the dead. Two bodies wrapped in white sheets lie near the pit.

Police and militia in Dujiangyan pulverized rubble with cranes and backhoes while crews used shovels to pick around larger pieces of debris. On one sidestreet, about a dozen bodies were laid on a sidewalk, while incense sticks placed in a pile of sand sent smoke into the air as a tribute and to dull the stench of death.

The bodies were later lifted onto a flatbed truck, joining some half-dozen corpses. Ambulances sped past, sirens wailing, filled with survivors. Workers asked those left homeless to sign up for temporary housing, although it was unclear where they would live.

Plans for the Defence Ministry to deploy 101 more helicopters underscored worries that the death toll would continue to skyrocket as time runs out to find survivors. Nearly 26,000 people remained buried in collapsed buildings.

Not all hope of finding survivors was lost. After more than three days trapped under debris, a 22-year-old woman was pulled to safety in Dujiangyan. Covered in dust and peering out through a small opening, she was shown waving on state television shortly before being rescued.

"I was confident that you were coming to rescue me. I'm alive. I'm so happy," the unnamed woman said on CCTV.

One earthquake expert said the time for rescues was growing short.

"Within 72 hours after the disaster is the critical period. Generally, the sooner the rescue of the buried, the better," the chief engineer of Shijiazhuang Bureau of Seismology, Liang Guiping, told state TV.

The government issued a rare appeal to the Chinese public calling for donations of rescue equipment including hammers, shovels, demolition tools and rubber boats. The plea on the Ministry of Information Industry's website said, for example, that 100 cranes were needed.

The public request is emblematic of China's relative openness in dealing with the tragedy, as compared to past crises.

"This is only a beginning of this battle, and a long way lies ahead of us," Vice Health Minister Gao Qiang told reporters in Beijing.

No outbreaks of disease had struck refugees, who were being immunized against some illnesses, Gao said. Workers were seeking to ensure safety of drinking water and removing corpses to prevent the spread of bacteria.

After days of refusing foreign relief workers, China accepted an offer from Japan to send a rescue team, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in an announcement posted on the ministry website. Taiwan's Red Cross said rival China also agreed to accept a 20-person emergency relief team from the island.

Taiwan is also sending a cargo plane to Chengdu with tents and medical supplies. The Air Macau plane will make a brief stop in Macau.

Taiwan and China, which split during civil war in 1949, have banned regular direct links and other formal contacts as political disputes persist.

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

Gu Qinghui, the federation's disaster management director for East Asia who visited Beichuan county near the epicentre, said more than 4 million homes were shattered across the quake area.

"The whole county has been destroyed. Basically there is no Beichuan county anymore," Gu said in Beijing, adding the death toll was sure to rise.

Forty-four counties and districts in Sichuan were severely hit, with about half of the 20 million people living there directly affected, Xinhua said.

Roads were cleared to two key areas that bore the brunt of the quake's force, with workers making it to the border of Wenchuan county at the epicentre and also through to hard-hit Beichuan county, Xinhua reported. Communication cables were also reconnected to Wenchuan.

The Chengdu Military Area Command also planned to airdrop 50,000 packets of food, 5,000 cotton-padded quilts and clothes there, part of the military rescue operation that has grown to include more than 116,000 soldiers and police.

Dujiangyan city was clogged with buses and trucks decked out with banners from companies saying they were offering aid to disaster victims. One tour bus was stuffed full of water bottles, cartons of biscuits and instant noodles.

Public donations so far have totalled $125 million in both cash and goods.

NBA star Yao Ming, China's most famous athlete, was planning to donate $285,000 to the relief effort, agent Erik Zhang said.

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