BEIJING (Reuters) - A strong earthquake toppled hundreds of homes and some schools in the remote mountainous Tibetan Plateau of southwest China on Wednesday, killing at least 400 people and injuring thousands.
Hundreds of troops have been dispatched to Qinghai Province’s Yushu county and some aid shipments from private organizations have set off from the provincial capital, Xining.
“I see injured people everywhere. The biggest problem now is that we lack tents, we lack medical equipment, medicine and medical workers,” Zhuohuaxia, a local spokesman, told the Xinhua news agency.
More than 10,000 people were injured and thousands left homeless in freezing conditions after a series of quakes and aftershocks caused many of the low, mud-brick buildings in county to collapse, residents and state media said.
A dam has “cracked,” Xinhua said, and “workers are trying to prevent the outflow of water.” It was not immediately clear how large the dam was or what damage it could cause if it burst.
The main 6.9 quake was centered in the mountains that divide Qinghai province from the Tibet Autonomous Region.
“People are very scared,” said Pierre Deve, with Snowland Service Group, a local non-government organization, adding that many had already given up hope for those still trapped.
Some bridges and roads around Yushu have cracked or been cut off completely, which could complicate rescue efforts, state television said. The airport is open, but the road connecting it to the county seat has been heavily damaged, it added.
The Tibetan plateau is regularly shaken by earthquakes, though casualties are usually minimal because so few people live there.
Yushu is home to some 100,000 people, spread over a vast area, but the quake struck near the relatively highly-populated county seat of Jyeku.
Government officials told state media the majority of houses had been badly damaged.
Photos showed larger concrete buildings mostly intact, with rubble around them. At least five people have also died in neighboring Gansu province, Xinhua said.
President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have demanded no effort be spared in rescue attempts, and sent Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu to Qinghai to oversee relief work, state television said.
Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who was born in Qinghai, said in a statement he was praying for the victims.
“It is my hope that all possible assistance and relief work will reach these people. I am also exploring how I, too, can contribute to these efforts,” said the Nobel Peace Prize winner, accused by Beijing of promoting Tibetan independence.
He says he simply wants more meaningful autonomy for Tibet.
Xinhua reported that the early morning quake had caused some schools and part of a government office building to cave in. Some vocational school students and primary school students were trapped in the rubble, it said, although residents said most students had been able to flee to playgrounds.
“Most of the schools in Yushu were built fairly recently and should have been able to withstand the earthquake,” said Wang Liling, a volunteer worker for Gesanghua, a Chinese charity that helps school children in Qinghai. Her group, she said, had heard that a vocational school collapsed in Yushu.
“Many homes have been damaged, but we’ll have to wait until this evening, when our staff arrive there, to understand anything specific.”
Xinhua quoted one teacher, identified only by his surname Chang, at an Yushu primary school who said five of their pupils had died when the buildings collapsed.
“Morning sessions did not begin when the quake happened. Some pupils ran out of dorms alive, and those who had not escaped in time were buried,” Chang said.
The widespread collapse of school buildings when other surrounding buildings stayed standing, caused anger and accusations of corruption after the devastating May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province, which killed 80,000.
“A lot of one-storey houses have collapsed. Taller buildings have held up, but there are big cracks in them,” resident Talen Tashi told Reuters.
People from the Yushu prefecture highway department were frantically trying to dig out colleagues trapped in a collapsed building, department official Ji Guodong said by telephone.
“The homes are built with thick walls and are strong, but if they collapsed they could hurt many people inside,” Zhuo De told Reuters by phone from Xining after contacting his family in Yushu.
The quake was centered in the mountains that divide Qinghai province from the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The foothills to the south and east of the area are home to herders and Tibetan monasteries of Yushu county, while the area to the north and west is arid and desolate.
The quake was centered 150 miles north northwest of Qamdo in Tibet and 235 miles south southeast of the mining town of Golmud in Qinghai, and had a depth of 6.2 miles, the United States Geological Service said.
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley, Liu Zhen and Huang Yan, and Bappa Majumdar in New Delhi; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ron Popeski