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Earthquake in China kills 259

©Associated Press
February 25, 2003

BEIJING -- With bloodied hands, survivors dug through rubble and called out for their missing loved ones after a powerful earthquake knocked down homes and schools on Monday in western China, officials said. At least 259 people were killed and more than 2,050 injured.

The quake toppled farmhouses on families and collapsed schools on students in Bachu county, near China's mountainous border with Kyrgyzstan, officials said.

Thousands were left homeless and without shelter overnight in 14-degree temperatures. More than 8,861 homes and schools collapsed in Bachu, a town of 30,000 people, officials said.

The government put the quake's magnitude at 6.8, while the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colo., said it was magnitude 6.3.

"Survivors and injured people were digging in the debris around their collapsed houses with bleeding hands, calling the names of missing relatives," said a Bachu County official, who gave his name as Mimati.

The dead ranged from elderly people to infants, he said. A Bachu County police officer reached by telephone said he had seen battered bodies of adults and children pulled from the rubble.

The official Xinhua News Agency said the death toll from the 10:03 a.m quake was at least 259 people.

At least 10 students died when their junior high school collapsed in the county's most badly damaged town, Chongku Qiake, government official Maimai Qiming said. A primary school in the town also was felled by the quake, killing two students, said another Bachu county official, who gave only his surname, Wu.

More than 2,000 soldiers and paramilitary policemen joined rescue efforts in the area, which lies on the western edge of China's Xinjiang region. Troops were using about 100 pieces of heavy equipment to move rubble, Xinhua reported.

Government units have sent more than 6,000 tents, emergency food and medical supplies to the area, Xinhua said. Insulated clothing and blankets have also been sent out by the Red Cross, although much of the relief supplies are not expected to arrive until Tuesday, it said.

A specially trained 42-member earthquake rescue team departed Monday evening from Beijing with dogs and detection equipment to search for buried victims, government television reported. Pictures showed uniformed crew members loading a container of equipment aboard a transport plane, which then flew off into the night sky.

It wasn't clear when the team would arrive at the quake site, about 1,750 miles west of Beijing.

China's Cabinet authorized the release of emergency funds, state television reported. It said Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and other senior leaders contacted local officials and ordered them to ensure that survivors had adequate water, food and shelter.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was visiting Beijing, said at a news conference, "I send my sympathy and condolences to the families of those who have been lost in this tragedy."

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Chinese President Jiang Zemin a telegram on Monday expressing deep condolences over the loss of life in the earthquake, the Kremlin said.

Reporting on the death toll, Xinhua said the quake was the most severe to hit Xinjiang, a region populated mostly by Turkic-speaking Muslims, since the start of communist rule in 1949.

Earthquakes are common in Xinjiang, especially in its west, which covers the eastern foothills of the soaring Pamir and Tianshan mountains of Central Asia. But they usually cause few injuries and little property damage because the area is so sparsely populated.

China's worst earthquake in its modern history, a magnitude 7.8 to 8.2 temblor on July 28, 1976, killed some 240,000 around the northeastern city of Tangshan.

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