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Page last updated at 10:53 GMT, Friday, 16 May 2008 11:53 UK

Chinese leader visits quake area

A man cries amid debris in Sichuan province, 15 May, 2008
Hopes are fading of finding any more survivors under the rubble

Chinese President Hu Jintao has flown to south-western Sichuan Province, where it is feared up to 50,000 people may have died in Monday's earthquake.

So far, 22,069 deaths have been confirmed in the region and thousands more people remain missing.

Mr Hu said rescue work had entered its "most crucial phase", Xinhua news agency reported.

As the search for survivors continued intensively on Friday, four people were reportedly pulled out alive.

Four days after the quake, Chinese CCTV showed pictures of a five-year-old boy, looking weak and bruised, being taken from the rubble, bandaged and strapped to a stretcher.

We must make every effort, race against time and overcome all difficulties to achieve the final victory of the relief efforts
President Hu Jintao

Meanwhile, a 23-year-old nurse was rescued from the ruins of a hospital, and two survivors were found buried together beneath a collapsed office building in the shattered district of Beichuan, state news agency Xinhua reported.

And further aftershocks - one measuring 5.9 - continued to strike the area, causing landslides that buried vehicles and knocked out communications only just restored.

'Time is pressing'

The Chinese president's presence in the region appears to reflect the level of government concern over the scale of the disaster.

"The challenge is still severe, the task is still arduous and the time is pressing," said Mr Hu.

"We must make every effort, race against time and overcome all difficulties to achieve the final victory of the relief efforts."

He was speaking after arriving in Mianyang, one of the cities worst-hit by the 7.9-magnitude earthquake, where he was to view the relief efforts and meet troops and medical personnel.

The first foreign rescuers have now arrived in the devastated region.

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A student is helped to walk free after being trapped for 80 hours

Thirty-one Japanese experts arrived on Friday morning, state media said, and a second team with sniffer dogs was due there later in the day.

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

Troops have now reached all of the affected areas, state media says. It adds that about 159,000 people were injured in the quake and 4.8 million people have been relocated.

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Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who has been in the area since the earthquake struck, said the focus of the effort was still reaching survivors.

"Saving lives is still our top priority, as long as hope of survival still exists," he said.

But the task remains huge.

Seven schools, including two nursery schools, collapsed in the town of Mianzhu alone, burying more than 1,700 students.

In Hanwang town, about 700 students were buried when Donqi middle school collapsed.

The BBC's James Reynolds in Hanwang described seeing rescuers emerge from a building carrying two bodies, and watching parents wait at the school, hoping their children would come out alive.

China has announced an investigation into why many schools collapsed.

Desperate for aid

More than 200,000 houses have collapsed in Sichuan province, while more than four million have been damaged in some way, Xinhua said.

In Mianzhu, one of the worst-hit towns, one woman said the focus should switch to caring for the 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," Fan Xiaohua told Reuters news agency.

"In fact, they are very big issues right now," she said.

While the government says the search is still the priority, it is stepping up the effort to get aid to the millions of people displaced or cut off by the disaster, says the BBC's Dan Griffiths in the Sichuan capital Chengdu.

Tens of thousands of Chinese troops and police are in the region to help with relief efforts but damage to roads is making it difficult to get to the worst-hit regions.

In the village of Houzhuang, south of Beichuan, residents said they had still not received any aid.

"We ate some corn, but now we are suffering from diarrhoea after drinking water from the ditch for two days," a resident surnamed Liu told Reuters.

"Now we've been trying to get things out of the debris to use, like clothes, but we're very frightened that there will be another earthquake, so we have to be very careful," he said.

Aid agencies say while some aid is getting through, more food, medical supplies and tents are desperately needed.


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