YUSHU, China (Reuters) - China's premier flew to the Tibetan plateau on Thursday to oversee feverish rescue efforts after a strong earthquake, but crews held out little hope for residents trapped in freezing weather under the rubble of homes, schools and monasteries.
The death toll from Wednesday's 6.9 magnitude quake climbed to 617. Nearly 10,000 were injured and Gyegu, the seat of Yushu country, was devastated.
Premier Wen Jiabao clambered up a tower of rubble from a crushed building and addressed a large group of the city's shaken and hungry residents.
"As long as there is the slightest hope, we will make efforts that are 100-fold," he told the crowd, speaking through a bullhorn in comments also translated into Tibetan.
"Your disaster is our disaster, your suffering is our suffering," said Wen, who postponed his trip to Myanmar, Brunei and Indonesia for next week.
President Hu Jintao is cutting short his visit to Latin America because of the earthquake and will return home early from Brazil, where he is attending a summit of leading emerging markets, a Brazilian Foreign Ministry spokesman said. He was supposed to go on to Venezuela and Chile.
Wen was not given the rapturous welcome that he often receives in predominantly Han Chinese regions. But after he spoke, the crowd, including Tibetan Buddhist monks, applauded. He shook hands with at least one monk.
Many Chinese were deeply touched when he visited quake sites in Sichuan province following a tremor that killed 80,000 there in 2008 and personally encouraged rescuers and those trapped under the rubble, which earned him the nickname "Grandpa Wen."
Rescuers this time struggled with the high altitude and chilly winds which whip the remote region at this time of year.
Tents have sprung up around a statue of a warrior on a horse in Gyegu, home to most of the region's 100,000 people. Monks dug with shovels as soldiers handed out rice and gruel to survivors.
When police handed out sachets of instant noodles at one tent camp, locals rushed with outstretched hands to grab the bags.
"What we urgently need are tents, quilts, cotton-padded clothing and instant food," Zou Ming, disaster relief director from the Civil Affairs Ministry, told reporters in Beijing. Tent supplies had been allocated but not yet fully shipped, he added.
"The main problem now is lack of transportation, and it will take time for them to arrive at the staging area."
Nearly 1,000 people were seriously injured, the Xinhua news agency said, quoting a spokesman with the rescue headquarters in the ethnically Tibetan town. Hundreds remain unaccounted for.
In Yushu, the main sports stadium was turned into a makeshift hospital, unable to cope with the number of injured. Dozens of injured and distraught Tibetans lay on the ground outside, their broken limbs crudely splinted with wooden lathes.
Some survivors were evacuated on aircraft to the provincial capital Xining and other cities, state media said.
The quake was centered in the mountains that divide the southwestern province of Qinghai from the Tibet Autonomous Region. The Tibetan plateau is regularly shaken by quakes, though casualties are usually minimal because so few people live there.
Buses carrying rescue workers and army trucks filled with food and medicine rumbled all night through sleet, sandstorms and fierce winds along the 1,000 km-long (620-mile) highway separating Yushu from Qinghai's provincial capital.
Tibetan Buddhist monks have turned out in force to help rescue efforts, though 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 organizations, some worry.
"They say the army is helping us here but look, it's all up to us," said Tashi, a Tibetan volunteer outside the stadium, as he tried to transfer patients to nearby hospitals.
Volunteers and donors traded information via Twitter, while Tibetans and Chinese held an impromptu fund-raiser in Beijing.
In the 2008 Sichuan quake, the widespread collapse of school buildings when many other surrounding buildings remained standing, caused anger and accusations of corruption.
In Yushu, 66 students and 10 teachers were confirmed dead at three schools, including a vocational school, Xinhua said.
This time, material was deployed in speedy fashion.
Both the president and premier have called for all-out efforts in rescue attempts and sent Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu to Qinghai to oversee relief work.
Many locals said they were happy to see help arrive quickly, but also worried that reconstruction would take a long time.
Survivors slept beneath quilts scavenged from beneath the cinderblocks and bricks of their former homes, or set up tents on a flat area just outside town.
China does not need foreign rescue workers, government official Zou said, as it has enough of its own people on the ground.
"The disaster area is very remote, and communications limited, so it would be hard for (foreign rescuers) to play much of a role," he added.
Still, Japan will give China up to 100 million yen in emergency quake aid, Japan's Foreign Ministry said.
Traditional Tibetan homes on slopes above town suffered some of the worst destruction. Though many new buildings were intact, brick and mud homes crumpled, apparently killing many inside.
"Some homes just weren't built properly and collapsed," said Xinzha, a Tibetan woman helping neighbors sort through a ruined home, in which three people had died. "If families have enough money they can build nice, strong homes."
Cracks appeared in a dam near Gyegu, Xinhua has said, adding that repair workers were trying to stabilize the structure and prevent it from bursting and flooding the town.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Lucy Hornby, Yu Le and Liu Zhen; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Ron Popeski