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Page last updated at 13:28 GMT, Saturday, 17 May 2008 14:28 UK

China quake victims flee 'flood'

People fleeing from Beichuan 17/5/08
People sought refuge on the hills surrounding the destroyed city

There has been panic in the quake-hit Chinese city of Beichuan after reports the entire city could be flooded by a river bursting its banks.

The BBC's Paul Danahar in Beichuan says there was a stampede as thousands of people fled to higher ground.

The whole city was evacuated, forcing the suspension of all rescue efforts, our correspondent says.

Beichuan is close to the epicentre of Monday's devastating quake, in which it is feared about 50,000 people died.

On Saturday the number of confirmed deaths rose to 28,881. The Chinese authorities say that about five million people have been made homeless by the disaster.

We were in the process of filming a man about to be pulled out after hours of digging and the rescue team had to abandon him and run
BBC correspondent Paul Danahar in Beichuan

Our correspondent in Beichuan says the city went from a scene of rescue and relief into mayhem.

"Everybody just ran - rescuers, army relief teams, medical workers and locals - and people who were in the process of being rescued had to be left behind.

"We were in the process of filming a man about to be pulled out after hours of digging and the rescue team had to abandon him and run."

The Xinhua news agency warned that a lake, formed by landslides blocking a river, "may burst its bank at any time".

However, the authorities later said the city was not under threat from the water.

Our correspondent returned to the heart of the city as the rescue effort resumed, but he says the majority of people are remaining on the surrounding hillsides.

map

"It is not surprising," he says. "This entire community has been shaken to its core, they are surrounded by unstable buildings which threaten to topple at any moment, and the people have been deeply traumatised by what has happened."

The Chinese government has organised a massive search and rescue effort, which has garnered some success.

On Saturday, several people were dug out of the rubble, including a 52-year-old man who was pulled free after 117 hours buried in debris.

Xinhua also reported that a German tourist was pulled from the rubble - though it later revised its story, saying the mountain climber had not been buried, just cut off by a landslide, and that he made his own way to safety.

Mass graves

Rescue teams from South Korea, Singapore and Russia have joined Japanese and Taiwanese experts taking part in the massive search.

The specialist teams are equipped with sniffer dogs, and fibre-optic cameras and heat sensors to detect people buried under the rubble.

But the number of people being pulled out alive are few and increasingly it is dead bodies which are being retrieved.

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BBC reporter at the scene

The authorities have resorted to burying the bodies in mass graves in an effort to prevent disease.

People in the quake zone are being told to wear face masks and disinfectant teams are out in force.

The BBC's Quentin Sommerville in Chengdu says that five days on China's efforts are now squarely focused on getting help to those who survived the earthquake.

Rubble from destroyed buildings is being taken away and streets are being cleared.

In some of the worst hit areas, people now have tents, fresh water, and something to eat. But in more inaccessible parts of the province, the authorities are still struggling to get help to survivors.

Race against time

China's president has urged rescuers throughout 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".

"Although the time for the best chance of rescue, the first 72 hours after an earthquake, has passed, saving lives remains the top priority of our work," Mr Hu told distraught relatives of those still missing.

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

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.

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

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.



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