Page last updated at 04:55 GMT, Sunday, 18 April 2010 05:55 UK

China quake bodies burnt on pyres in Jiegu

Tibetan cremation
The victims were cremated by Buddhist monks

About 700 people who died in a massive earthquake in north-west China on Wednesday have been cremated outside the worst-hit town, Jiegu.

After being blessed by chanting Buddhist monks, the bodies were placed in a trench and set alight.

The number of people known to have died in Qinghai province has risen to 1,339, with 322 missing, officials say.

China's President Hu Jintao flew to give support to the region on Sunday after cutting short a trip to Brazil.

The Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has said he would like to visit his birthplace to comfort survivors.

The Dalai Lama was born in Qinghai but has not set foot in China since a failed Tibetan uprising more than 50 years ago.

Thousands homeless

Tibetans traditionally perform sky burials, which involve chopping a body into pieces and leaving it on a platform to be devoured by vultures.

But the authorities have decided to cremate victims because of fears that disease may spread rapidly.

"The vultures can't eat them all," said one local man.

Local monks constructed a huge funeral pyre near Jiegu township.

After the earthquake, many residents of the largely-Tibetan town turned to the monks and their traditions for help, rather than a central authority dominated by the majority Han Chinese.

Thousands of people have been left homeless, with many having to sleep outdoors in freezing temperatures.

Despair in China as the search for survivors continues

The rescue effort is continuing, but it is four days since the earthquake hit, the chances of finding more people alive under the rubble of Jiegu are growing slim, said the BBC's Quentin Sommerville.

Many of those who survived the quake have endured days without proper shelter or food. The town lies high in the mountains of Qinghai, the air is thin and the temperature often drops below freezing at night.

There has been no response yet from Beijing to the Dalai Lama's statement on visiting the victims.

In the statement, issued from his home-in-exile in northern India, the Dalai Lama said: "Because of the physical distance between us, at present I am unable to comfort those directly affected, but I would like them to know I am praying for them."

The Dalai Lama also praised Chinese officials for their quick response to the quake.

China has despatched 10,000 troops and doctors to help, but the scale of the devastation is so large, they are struggling to cope.

But the authorities in Beijing have pledged to do everything they can to help the victims of the earthquake, and eventually, to rebuild the shattered town.

Premier Wen Jiabao has promised "all-out effort" to rebuild the area.

Tibetan monks dig through rubble in Jiegu, China (16 April 2010)

Heavy-lifting equipment has been arriving in the remote Himalayan region by road from hundreds of kilometres away.

Food, tents and medical supplies are arriving too but rescue workers say there is a critical need for further supplies.

Rescuers in Yushu, which lies at about 4,000m (13,000ft), are facing freezing weather and high altitude.

Ninety-seven percent of Yushu's population is ethnic Tibetan, and state media said that 500 interpreters were being sent to aid rescuers.

The quake, which struck on Wednesday morning at the shallow depth of 10km (six miles), knocked out phone and power lines, and triggered landslides, blocking vital roads.

Mr Wen visited the affected area on Thursday and Friday.

He said the people would "overcome the disaster and improve national unity in fighting the calamity".

Qinghai map

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