05/16/2008, 00.00
CHINA
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Hu Jintao in Sichuan, perhaps 50,000 dead

For the Chinese president rescue operations are entering their “crucial phase.” The prime minister urges the party to work towards maintaining social stability. Hospitals are full as hope to find survivors under the rubble fades by the hour. First foreign rescue teams arrive in the area.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Rescue efforts have entered their “most crucial” phase since a powerful quake struck Sichuan last Monday, said Chinese President Hu Jintao, who arrived in the disaster area today. For him the “challenge is still severe, the task is still arduous and the time is pressing.” Meanwhile the county is bracing for a death toll that could soar past 50,000.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao again appealed for social stability, calling on the Communist Party leadership to ensure such stability in light of the frustration and exhaustion that is growing among survivors, many of whom have lost everything and are living in makeshift tents or in the open air.

State media report that after four days of work, rescue teams reached all 58 counties and townships struck by the quake.

Wenchuan, the epicentre, was razed to the ground. Rescuers say tens of thousands of bodies lie beneath the rubbles,

“Anyone buried in an earthquake can survive without water and food for three days,” said Gu Linsheng, a researcher with Tsinghua University's Emergency Management Research Centre.

The province’s health infrastructure is being overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster.

Dr. Shen Ji, director general of the provincial health department, said that so far “there's no occurrence of earthquake-related epidemic disease outbreak.”

The Health Ministry issued an advisory, saying that “Bodies should be cleaned on the spot and buried as soon as possible” to avoid outbreaks of typhus and cholera.

Overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the disaster the government has given the green light to foreign rescue teams, whose presence was initially rejected.

Today 31 Japanese experts arrived and a second team with sniffer dogs was due there later in the day.

Russia, South Korea and Singapore are also sending teams to help in the rescue effort.

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