Hundreds of people were killed or injured when a strong earthquake struck China’s southwestern Sichuan province Saturday, local officials said, five years after a massive quake devastated the region.
The shallow earthquake struck close to the city of Ya’an on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau just after 8:00 am (0000 GMT), setting off landslides, destroying buildings and triggering a major rescue operation.
Four hours after the quake struck, the death toll stood at 56, the Xinhua news agency said, quoting the provincial earthquake relief headquarters.
CCTV News had earlier reported 72 killed but revised that down to 47, with 600 injured, citing the Sichuan emergency authorities.
The quake sent panicked residents in cities hundreds of kilometers away fleeing into the streets, some of them still in their slippers and pajamas.
Local seismologists registered the quake at magnitude 7.0 while the U.S. Geological Survey gave it as 6.6 at a depth of 12 kilometers (seven miles). It was followed by several aftershocks.
“The earthquake in Ya’an, Lushan, has injured or killed hundreds of people,” the Sichuan earthquake bureau said.
Local authorities, who were heavily criticized after Sichuan’s 2008 quake left 87,000 people missing or dead, swiftly mobilized and President Xi Jinping ordered all out efforts to minimize casualties, Xinhua said.
Premier Li Keqiang was flying to Ya’an, the People’s Daily website said.
Rescue workers heading for the quake zone were struggling to clear roads that had been blocked by debris, CCTV reported.
The tremors were felt as far as the megacity of Chongqing, home to around 30 million people, several hundred kilometers to the east, with Xinhua showing images of residents outside their apartment buildings after fleeing the shaking.
Xinhua said 2,000 troops were being dispatched to the area, with two helicopters from the Chengdu Military Area Command sent to assess developments on the ground.
The military set up a quake relief and rescue headquarters and medical relief team for the quake-hit region.
Xinhua quoted a resident in the provincial capital Chengdu, who was on the 13th floor when the quake hit, as saying he felt the shaking for about 20 seconds and saw tiles fall off nearby buildings.
City residents ran onto the street to get away from high rises, making phone calls and crying, a Sichuan government website reported.
A few had even packed bags in case they needed to take shelter elsewhere.
In 2008 the province saw one of the country’s worst earthquakes in decades.
That quake, which struck west-northwest of Chengdu, generated an outpouring of support, with volunteers rushing to the scene to offer aid and then-premier Wen Jiabao also visiting.
The disaster flattened swathes of the province along with parts of neighboring Shaanxi and Gansu.
But there was public anger after the discovery that many schools fell while other buildings did not, creating suspicion of corruption and corner-cutting in construction.
The deaths of the children became a sensitive and taboo subject in the heavily controlled domestic media and social media websites.
Earthquakes frequently strike the country’s southwest, with twin tremors in neighboring Yunnan province last September triggering landslides that left at least 80 people dead.
Houses were toppled and people slept outdoors for fear of aftershocks, as emergency workers struggled to clear mountain roads blocked by the landslides to reach survivors.
A 5.5-magnitude earthquake in Yunnan last June killed four people and injured more than 100. Another 5.4 tremor the year before near the border with Myanmar left 25 people dead and injured 250.
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