Powerful China aftershocks cause landslides

Four days after earth-shattering tremors left huge swathes of southwest China in ruins, the region suffered renewed chaos today after a powerful aftershock caused potentially deadly landslides.

Measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale, the aftershock hit Lixian, in Sichuan province, just west of the original epicentre in Wenchuan. Recently unblocked roads were cut off yet again, and newly repaired phone connections were destroyed.

The Chinese state news agency said it was not clear how many people had been killed or injured.

“The…quake lasted about ten seconds and reporters saw rocks sliding from nearby mountains," it said. "A number of vehicles were buried in landslides. The casualties were not known."

The aftershock came just hours after President Hu Jintao arrived in the quake zone to reinvigorate a rescue operation in which miracles are becoming fewer and farther between. An estimated 20,000 people have been killed in the natural disaster, with the final

Arriving in Mianyang, one of the worst-hit cities in Sichuan province, Mr Hu said: “The challenge is still daunting, the task is still arduous and the time pressing.”

Although experts say that the 72-hour “golden relief time”, after which it is unlikely anyone can survive buried without water or food, has passed, Mr Hu insisted: “Saving lives is still the top priority of our work.”

Indeed, 80 hours after the 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck on Monday, the Chinese state news agency reported that rescuers in the remote city of Beichuan, in the north of Sichuan, had pulled out a student from the debris of a collapsed school.

Sixteen hours later and in the same town, a nurse was rescued from the rubble of a former clinic. A factory worker was also reported to have been rescued after 100 hours underground in a factory in Yunhua, where almost every building was flattened.

Meanwhile, the 19 British tourists airlifted out of the Wolong Panda Reserve where they were stranded for three days, today began their journey back to Britain.

However, it is clear that priorities are changing. As finding survivors becomes increasingly unlikely, people’s thoughts are turning to how to deal with the aftermath of a natural disaster which has killed almost 20,000 people – a death toll predicted to rise to 50,000.

Some expressed frustration at the resources being allocated to continuing the search for survivors.

"The focus is on saving lives, and they say food and a place to live are small issues as long as you're alive," said Fan Xiaohua, an organiser at a relief centre in Mianzhu, where seven schools collapsed and more than 3,000 people died. "In fact, they are very big issues right now."

Many key access roads are blocked, phone lines and mobile phone stations are down and tens of thousands of people across Sichuan have had their homes destroyed and are now living in makeshift tents without access to food or water.

Ten thousand people are squeezed into Mianyang’s stadium. In one county of the neighboring province, Gansu, more than 50,000 people have been left homeless.

Amid the chaos, they are facing the equally grueling tasks of locating missing loved ones and burying their dead.

Interspersed with graphic, slow-motion rescue scenes from the past few days set to Canto-pop music, Chinese television is broadcasting interviews with health, communications and housing experts.

The government has begun drafting new adoption plans in response to inquiries from both international and Chinese organizations about the growing number of orphans left behind.

The housing ministry has also ordered an investigation after facing angry questions from Chinese demanding to know why so many schools were unable to withstand the quake.

In a rare online conversation with citizens on a ministry forum, a sign of the relative openness with which the government has dealt with this most recent crisis, it emerged that the current number of destroyed school rooms stood at 6,898, not including figures from the more remote areas.

“The intensity of this earthquake far exceeded the state requirements of earthquake resistance for this area,” ministry officials said.

But, they added: “If quality problems do exist in the school buildings, we will punish those responsible severely and give the public a satisfactory answer.”