Qinghai quake: 617 dead, schools down, people digging with bare hands
Rescue teams and heavy equipment are slow to reach affected area. President Hu Jintao pledged an all-out effort. Almost US$ 30 million are allocated for immediate use. Propaganda department stops reporters from going to the area. Like in Sichuan, recriminations over collapsed schools begin. Thousands of students are still under the rubbles. Dalai Lama offers prayers for the dead.
Xining (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Thousands of survivors braved freezing temperatures overnight with little shelter after a major earthquake flattened much of Yushu County in Qinghai province. As rescue teams pour into the area, local residents continue to dig out from the rubble anyone who might still be alive. In many locations, entire buildings, mostly wood, brick or even mud, have collapsed.

This morning, the death toll rose to 617, but 313 people are still missing. More than 9,000 people have been injured, almost a thousand very seriously. About 900 people have been pulled out alive from under the rubble.

Soldiers and emergency teams are expected today after Yushu airport reopened following repairs. However, roads leading to and from the quake area are still blocked.

Convoys carrying food, tents and rescue workers have a hard time travelling along roads clogged by landslides.

The region’s altitude is another major problem. At more than 4,000 meters, air is rarefied, making breathing difficult, causing migraine to rescuers.

Power is out and communication lines are down. Cracks have appeared in a dam near the city of Jyeku. Repair workers are trying to stabilise the structure.

President Hu Jintao called for all-out efforts to save as many people as possible.

About 5,000 quake specialists have been dispatched from neighbouring provinces plus tents, clothing and blankets.

The Ministry of Finance said that it allocated 200 million yuan (US$ 29 million) to deal with the aftermath of the quake.

The Communist Party's publicity department has “advised” the media not to send reporters because of safety reasons. Journalists believe this advice is designed to keep a lid on news.

Already comparisons are being made in the press and the blogosphere with the 2008 Sichuan quake, which killed almost 90,000.  Memories about that quake are still engraved in people’s minds. In Sichuan, just the collapse of schools killed about 10,000 children and pupils.

At the time, many parents accused local authorities for shoddily tofu-like schools, built in violation of anti-quake regulations, using poor concrete. However, some of the complainants ended up themselves in courts and prison for their trouble.

Yushu County had 192 schools, most of them boarding schools for out-of-county students. According to the Red Cross, 70 per cent of the schools have collapsed, with many students still trapped under the rubble.

The No 3 Primary School also collapsed; 16 bodies have been pulled out so far, 15 pupils and 1 teacher. But the final death toll could be very high since the school had 2,000 to 3,000 students, almost all Tibetan.

About 20 bodies have been recovered in a vocation school, but 20 more are still under the rubble.

More than 30 students were buried under the Yushu Nationality and Normal School, but only two have been rescued. The four-storey building buckled and folded on itself.

Qinghai has a population of about 5.57 million people. Yushu County has about 100,000 people, 97 per cent ethnic Tibetan.

Many Buddhist monks are working with survivors, but the authorities fear unrest and demonstrations. Thus, Yushu monasteries remain under tight controls. In recent years, monks have demonstrated in favour of the Dalai Lama’s return.

In Dharamsala, seat of the Tibetan government in exile, the Dalai Lama issued a press release. In it, he offered his condolences to the families of the victims and said that he would conduct a special funeral service for the dead.

“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,” he said.