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Page last updated at 14:21 GMT, Friday, 16 May 2008 15:21 UK

'Five million' homeless in quake

President Hu Jintao meets earthquake victims in Beichuan County
Mr Hu called for a "final victory" of relief efforts

Almost five million people have been left homeless by Monday's devastating earthquake in China's south-western Sichuan Province, officials say.

They said the extent of the problem only became clear when communications were restored.

So far, 22,069 deaths have been confirmed and thousands remain missing. It is feared up to 50,000 may be dead.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, visiting the province, said rescue work was at its most crucial phase.

Premier Wen Jiabao said the quake was the most destructive and widespread since the People's Republic was founded in 1949.

Its scale was greater than that of the Tangshan earthquake in 1976 which left 240,000 dead, he said.

China has announced an investigation into why so many schools have collapsed.

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

'Top priority'

Sichuan Vice-Governor Li Chengyun said 4.8 million people were now in "temporary shelter" following the earthquake.

Local officials said the extent of homelessness in the region only became clear on Friday.

"Before today, communications and roads to some cities and counties in the province were cut off because of the quake," the official told AFP news agency.

Saving lives is still our top priority, as long as hope of survival still exists
Premier Wen Jiabao

"That's why the number has increased so fast now that links have been restored with the cities and counties."

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.

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.

Mr Wen, 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.

Foreign rescuers

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."

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

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.

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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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.

'Big issues'

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.


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