Funeral pyres burn as quake death toll passes 1,400

Buddhist monks cremated hundreds of China quake victims over sanitation fears Saturday as hopes dimmed of finding further survivors, with the death toll rising to more than 1,400.

Naked, bloodied and bruised corpses were piled on a massive funeral pyre outside the shattered town of Jiegu on the remote Tibetan plateau and lit by chanting Buddhist monks, three days after the quake left thousands homeless.

The scale of the calamity and fears of disease forced a break from traditional Tibetan “sky burials” in which corpses are left on mountaintops to decompose or be consumed by vultures.

“We have never had a disaster like this. We have never had so many people die. Cremation is the only way to send these souls off,” said Jiemi Zhangsuo, head of the area’s main Buddhist monastery that handled the ceremony.

But the struggle was far from over for the devastated area of Qinghai province, with 1,484 dead and more than 300 still missing, as authorities fought to get sufficient relief personnel and aid to the isolated region.

Monks in the overwhelmingly ethnic Tibetan region in China’s northwest said they cremated 1,400 people at the ceremony, but AFP could not independently confirm that figure.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who earlier toured the disaster area, has cast the recovery efforts as a chance to foster unity in a region whose Buddhist ethnic Tibetans have a history of chafing at Chinese rule.

The Dalai Lama, who has been labelled a separatist by Beijing and was born in Qinghai province, on Saturday appealed to the Chinese authorities to allow him to visit the quake zone, where nearly 12,000 people were injured.

Tibetan Buddhist monks wearing maroon-and-saffron robes have been a prominent part of the rescue effort after Wednesday’s 6.9-magnitude quake, which caused flimsy traditional mud and wood dwellings to collapse.

“To fulfil the wishes of many of the people there, I am eager to go there myself to offer them comfort,” the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader said in a statement issued from Dharamshala, his home in northern India.

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. He has not been back to China since.

He praised the official response to the disaster, “especially Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who has not only personally offered comfort to the affected communities, but has also overseen the relief work.”

Infrastructure in Jiegu, the main population centre in the quake-hit region, has been shattered with the water supply “basically paralysed”, Xia Xueping, spokesman for relief efforts, told a news briefing.

President Hu Jintao returned to Beijing on Saturday after cutting short an overseas trip due to the quake, cancelling visits to Venezuela and Chile, which is still recovering from its own quake disaster.

About 13,000 rescue personnel had arrived in the region to aid rescue and recovery efforts, pulling more than 1,200 people from the rubble of collapsed buildings and bringing relief supplies, state media reported.

But Geng Yang, head of Qinghai’s civil affairs bureau, told a news briefing in Jiegu that essential items such as food, drinking water, cold-weather tents, quilts and clothing remained in short supply in the hard-to-reach area.

The Qinghai government warned meanwhile of a growing disease threat due to sanitation risks including damage to water supplies that could leave them polluted, although no such outbreaks had yet been reported.

A light snowfall began Saturday in the region, where relief efforts have also been complicated by sub-zero temperatures at night and scant oxygen due to the altitude of around 4,000 metres (13,000 feet).

More than 1,000 aftershocks have also been detected.

State media said earlier the dead included more than 100 students and 12 teachers as schools and dormitories collapsed, with dozens more missing, recalling the devastating 2008 quake in neighbouring Sichuan.

Thousands of students were among the 87,000 killed or missing in that disaster amid allegations shoddy construction was to blame.

However, in at least one sign of a return to normal, several dozen students at the Yushu School for Orphans in Jiegu resumed classes Saturday, with state television showing grim-faced teenagers lining up for the national anthem.

Rescuers suffering altitude sickness pulled a 13-year-old girl and an elderly Tibetan woman with broken legs from the rubble on Friday, 57 hours after the quake, Xinhua said.

But hopes of finding other survivors were fading three days after the disaster.