YUSHU, Qinghai - About 400 people have died and 8,000 others were injured after a 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit northwest China's Qinghai Province early on Wednesday, a local official said.
Many others are still buried under the debris of collapsed houses near the epicenter, said Huang Limin, deputy secretary-general of the government of the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Yushu.
About 700 soldiers are now struggling to clear away the rubble and rescue the buried people, a spokesman with the Qinghai Provincial Emergency Office said.
More than 5,000 additional rescuers, including soldiers and medical workers have been dispatched to the quake-hit region, according to a news conference held by the Qinghai provincial government.
"Our first task is to save students. Schools are always places that have many people," said Kang Zifu, an army officer in the rescue operation in Yushu. CASUALTIES, DAMAGES AND LOSSES
More than 85 percent of the houses in the Jiegu Township near the epicenter had collapsed, said Zhuohuaxia, a publicity official with the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Yushu.
"The streets in Jiegu are thronged with panic, injured people, with many bleeding in the head," he said.
"Many students are buried under the debris due to building collapse at a vocational school," he said.
"The strong quake has a shallow depth and the epicenter is close to the prefecture seat," said Sun Shihong, a research fellow with the China Earthquake Networks Center in Beijing.
"It is estimated there will be heavy casualties, as the quake occurred in the early morning and most of the local residents were yet to get up," he said.
"In addition, according to the building structure and damages, a large number of people will be injured," he added.
The quake led to a temporary cut of telecommunications and damaged roads to the airport. The epicenter is about 200 km away from the Qinghai-Tibet Railway.
"The railway line does not go through Yushu, so it unlikely to be affected by the quake," said Lin Zhigang, of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Company.
The quake was strongly felt in the neighboring Qamdo Prefecture and other regions in Tibet.
"But no casualties or major damages have been reported so far. We are investigating the losses," said Zhu Quan, director of the Tibet Autonomous Regional Seismological Bureau.
The bureau has dispatched an emergency team made up of 63 professional rescuers to Yushu, Zhu said.
"They left Qamdo in the morning and will arrive at Yushu in the afternoon," he said.
Another 17 rescuers have set off for Yushu from the Tibet regional capital of Lhasa, and they are expected to arrive at the region Thursday, he added.
The quake was also felt in parts of the neighboring Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Garze in Sichuan Province.
"Some houses were damaged or toppled, but no casualties have been reported," said Guo Jin, director of the Garze Bureau of Earthquake and Disaster Relief. RESCUE
The China Earthquake Administration has also sent 60 rescuers and 30 medical workers to the quake-hit region.
The China Eastern Airlines has arranged two Airbus aircraft for transporting rescuers and relief supplies.
The Qinghai Provincial Department of Civil Affairs has allocated 5,000 tents to the region.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Civil Affairs has allocated 5,000 tents, 50,000 cotton-padded clothes and 50,000 quilts to the region.
In addition, the Red Cross Society of China has dispatched a relief team to Yushu and allocated 100,000 yuan (14,706 U.S. dollars), 500 tents, 1,000 cotton-padded clothes and 1,000 quilts as relief supplies.
Pupils of some primary schools were among the buried, but the number was unknown, said Shi Huajie, an army police officer in the rescue operation.
"We have to mainly rely on our hands to clear away the debris as we have no large excavating machines," he said. "We have no medical equipment, either."
Wu Yong, commander of the Yushu Military Area Command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, said the death toll "may rise further as lots of houses collapsed."
"We are now putting up tents and transporting oxygen to prepare for treating the injured," he said.
"But roads leading to the airport have been damaged, hampering the rescue efforts," he said.
"In addition, frequent aftershocks and strong winds make the rescue operation more difficult," he added.
The quake struck the Yushu County in the Yushu prefecture at 7:49 a.m. with a depth of about 33 km. The epicenter is calculated to be 33.1 north and 96.7 east, the China Earthquake Networks Center reported.
At least 18 aftershocks have been reported so far, with the biggest being 6.3 magnitude about an hour and 36 minutes later.
"Aftershocks above 6 magnitude are still likely to happen in the coming several days," warned Liu Jie, of the China Earthquake Networks Center.
Earlier on 5:39 a.m., a 4.7-magnitude jolted the county with a depth of about 6 km, the center reported.
Yushu is a quake-prone region.
"A large crack appears in the wall of the Yushu Hotel, and part of a government office building also collapsed," he said.
"I can see injured people everywhere. The biggest problem now is that we lack tents, we lack medical equipment, medicine and medical workers," he said.
The epicenter is at the Rima Village in the Shanglaxiu Township, about 50 km west of Jiegu, the government seat of the Yushu prefecture, and about 800 km away from Xining, the Qinghai provincial capital.
"The epicenter is a pasturing area and sparsely-populated. I think the quake would not cause casualties as heavy as those in Jiegu," Zhuohuaxia said.
Jiegu has a population of about 100,000, including permanent residents and migrant people, he added.
"Buildings in our school were all toppled, and five pupils have died," said a teacher surnamed Chang at the Yushu Primary School, a boarding school with about 1,000 students.
"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 houses here are almost all made of wood and earthen walls, which will easily collapse when a quake happens," said Karsum Nyima, deputy director of the News Department of the Yushu TV Station.
Although Yushu is a sparsely-populated region, experts said the quake is very likely to cause "heavy" casualties.