About 5,000 specialist rescuers were dispatched from neighbouring provinces to the remote county of Yushu, where it is feared thousands more are trapped under rubble. Most of the buildings in the worst-hit town of Jiegu were destroyed and landslides have cut off roads. Karsum Nyima, a local journalist, said: “In a flash, the houses went down. It was a terrible earthquake
“Everybody is out on the streets, standing in front of their houses, trying to find their family members. In a small park, there is a Buddhist tower and the top of the tower fell off.”
China has been badly hit by earthquakes recently. In 2008, a magnitude 7.9 quake in Sichuan province left almost 90,000 people dead or missing.
Most of the 100,000 population in Yushu are Tibetan herders and farmers. The remote high-altitude region is prone to earthquakes, but the US Geological Survey said this was the strongest in the area since 1976.
The China Earthquake Administration said phone lines were down, hindering rescue efforts, while workers were racing to release water from a reservoir where a crack had formed.
In Jiegu, near the epicentre, more than 85 per cent of houses have collapsed and large cracks have appeared on buildings still standing. A local official said: “The streets in Jiegu are thronged with panic and full of injured people, with many of them bleeding from their injuries.”There were also students buried under the debris of a collapsed vocational school, he added.
A military of ficial, Shi Huajie, told state broadcaster CCTV that rescuers were working with limited equipment. “The difficulty we face is that we don’t have any excavators. Many of the people have been buried and our soldiers are trying to pull them out with human labour. It is very difficult to save people with our bare hands.” About 5,000 tents and 100,000 coats and heavy blankets were being sent to help survivors cope with strong winds and temperatures of about 6C. Wu Yong, a military chief, said medical workers were urgently needed but roads leading to the airport had been badly damaged. He said aftershocks and strong winds were hampering rescuers. The first quake hit at 7.45am local time. Ten minutes later there was a magnitude 5.3 quake, followed by a 5.2 and 5.8 rated aftershock. At least 18 aftershocks have been reported and more are expected.