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Page last updated at 05:04 GMT, Saturday, 17 May 2008 06:04 UK

China leader spurs rescue effort

Wounded earthquake survivors wait to be evacuated by helicopter in Sichuan province, 16 May, 2008
Damaged roads are making it difficult to reach survivors in hard-hit areas

China's president has urged rescuers in the earthquake-struck province of Sichuan to race to save lives.

Visiting the south-western province, Hu Jintao said "time is pressing" during the effort's "most crucial phase".

There have been 22,069 confirmed deaths and it is feared the toll could reach 50,000, but survivors are still being found five days after the quake struck.

"Saving lives remains the top priority of our work," Mr Hu told distraught relatives of those still missing.

Nearly five million people have been left homeless by the earthquake.

A report by the state news agency Xinhua that a German tourist was pulled from the rubble was later revised its story.

The agency said the mountain climber had not been buried, just cut off by a landslide, and that he made his own way to safety.

'Time is pressing'

On Friday, Mr Hu toured Mianyang, one of the cities worst-hit by the 7.9-magnitude earthquake, where he viewed relief efforts and met rescue workers.

President Hu Jintao meets earthquake victims in Beichuan County
We must make every effort, race against time and overcome all difficulties to achieve the final victory of the relief efforts
Chinese President Hu Jintao

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.

"Quake relief work has entered the most crucial phase. We must make every effort, race against time and overcome all difficulties to achieve the final victory of the relief efforts."

On Saturday, 33 people were dug out of the rubble in Beichuan, one of the worst-hit areas, China's official Xinhua news agency reported.

Six miners who had sheltered in a pit for 88 hours were among many survivors found late on Friday.

Massive proportions

Local officials said the extent of homelessness in the region only became clear on Friday as lines of communication and roads were reopened.

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

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.

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

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

But 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.

Building investigation

Chinese media estimates around 160,000 people were injured in the quake and 4.8 million people have been relocated.

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

A man cries amid debris in Sichuan province, 15 May, 2008

It says all affected areas have been reached by troops, but their task remains huge.

The first foreign rescuers arrived in the devastated region from Japan on Friday and teams from Taiwan, Russia, South Korea and Singapore are also heading to the region to help in the rescue effort.

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.

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


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