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China quake kills nearly 10,000 in Sichuan

CHENGDU, China (Reuters) - Nearly 10,000 people were killed by the earthquake that hammered southwest China, officials said on Tuesday as rescuers struggled to reach the worst-hit areas, where many more may have died.

Rescuers worked frantically through the night, pulling bodies from schools, homes, factories and hospitals that were demolished by the 7.8 magnitude quake, which rippled from a mountainous area of Sichuan province across much of China on Monday afternoon.

The toll from China’s worst earthquake for over three decades appeared sure to climb as troops struggled on foot to reach the worst-hit area, Wenchuan, a hilly county of 112,000 people 100 km (62 miles) from Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu.

About 900 teenagers were buried under a collapsed three-storey school building in the Sichuan city of Dujiangyan.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who rushed there, bowed three times in grief before some of the 50 bodies already pulled out, Xinhua news agency reported.

“Not one minute can be wasted,” Wen said, state television showed. “One minute, one second could mean a child’s life.”

At a second school in Dujiangyan, fewer than 100 of 420 students survived, Xinhua reported.

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China’s Communist Party leadership announced that coping with the devastating quake, and ensuring that it did not threaten social stability, was now the government’s top priority.

“Time is life,” said an official announcement from the Communist Party Standing Committee, according to the Xinhua news agency. “Make fighting the earthquake and rescue work the current top task.”

Officials must speed food, water, medicine and other necessities to quake-stricken areas, the meeting ordered, adding that officials must keep a grip on social stability.

“Strengthen positive guidance of opinion,” the meeting urged, warning against the spread of rumors.

The Sichuan quake was the worst to hit China since the 1976 Tangshan tremor in northeastern China where up to 300,000 died. Then, unlike now, the Communist Party kept a tight lid on information about the extent of the disaster.

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In Chengdu, many residents slept outside or in cars on Monday night, fearing more tremors in the city where at least 45 people died and 600 were injured.

The government has rushed troops and medical teams to dig for survivors and treat the injured. But severed roads and rail lines blocked the way to Wenchuan, and local officials described crumpled houses, landslides and scenes of desperation.

“We are in urgent need of tents, food, medicine and satellite communications equipment,” the Communist Party chief of Wenchuan, Wang Bin said, according to Xinhua.

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Most farmers’ homes in two townships had collapsed and there was no word from the three townships nearest the epicenter, which have a population of 24,000, the report added. So far Wenchuan has reported 15 dead, a number likely to rise steeply.

More than 7,000 may have died in Sichuan’s Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County, where 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed, Sichuan television said. Beichuan has a population of 161,000, meaning about one in 10 there were killed or injured.

“Even if it means walking in, we must enter the worst-hit areas as quickly as possible,” Wen said, according to Xinhua.

But a paramilitary officer marching with a hundred troops towards Wenchuan described a devastated landscape that is likely to yield many dead and to frustrate rescuers.

“I have seen many collapsed civilian houses and the rocks dropped from mountains on the roadside are everywhere,” said the People’s Armed Police officer Liu Zaiyuan, according to Xinhua.

Writing by Chris Buckley; Editing by John Chalmers