YUSHU, China (Reuters) - Tibetans mourned dead relatives Friday from an earthquake that killed nearly 800 people in remote western China, as rescue crews found a handful of survivors and homeless residents complained of aid delays.
The official death toll from the quake that flattened much of the town of Gyegu climbed to 791, though some local people cast doubt on that figure, saying many more had died without being counted. Estimates by NGOs support a figure of about 1,000 dead.
Survivors of Wednesday’s tremor spent another night huddled under quilts and in tents, while doctors struggled to treat the wounded in a makeshift medical centre.
In one Tibetan neighbourhood on the outskirts of Gyegu, police moved in to break up an angry crowd waiting for tents to be unloaded from a truck.
Cuona Laji, a wizened 67-year-old woman treated as a village elder by the residents, said the locals believed that people with political influence were getting more than their fair share of tents and other supplies.
She entreated people not to break out into fighting.
“We need food, fuel, tents and water and there’s not enough yet,” she told Reuters. “When people are so desperate, they feel especially angry if things aren’t shared fairly.”
Some survivors said they saw tents being taken away by people who were not from the quake-hit county of Yushu.
“The thing is that some people who were not affected by the quake are taking away and stealing our tents. Those people who came later today were not able to get any tents,” said 32-year-old quake survivor Suona Minju.
“They are experiencing hardship in their family, some of their kin died, they have no kitchen to cook, they have no tents and they have no homes.”
But in Beijing, Miao Chonggang, deputy director of quake relief at the China Earthquake Administration, said he had not heard of such problems.
“We do not have any knowledge of unfair distribution of aid materials,” he told a news conference, adding that relief work had been carried out “in an orderly manner.”
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Tibetan Buddhist monks clad in crimson cloaks and jackets joined the rescue effort undertaken by soldiers and rescue teams in distant, windswept Yushu county.
Monks from across Tibetan areas poured into Yushu to help with relief efforts, including a group from Qamdo in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
At a foothill under the main monastery of Gyegu, monks had gathered to chant mantras in front of piles of dead. Some helped residents look for kin among what appeared to be hundreds of bodies, collected on a covered platform.
“Many of the bodies you see here don’t have families or their families haven’t come looking for them, so it’s our job to take good care of them,” said Lopu, a monk clad in maroon robes.
“I’d say we’ve collected a thousand or more bodies here. Some we found ourselves, some were sent to us.”
Many bodies had already been removed by family members, he said.
Many injured locals spent a cold night in tents or outdoors waiting for medical aid. Harried doctors said they had had almost no sleep over the past two days.
Addressing residents of Gyegu high on the Tibetan plateau late Thursday, Premier Wen Jiabao clambered over rubble and pledged continued rescue efforts.
State television showed Wen comforting survivors in their tents, one of whom burst into tears while he was talking to her, a child cradled in her arms.
But temperatures well below freezing at night leave little chance of anyone still surviving under collapsed buildings in and around Gyegu, where most of Yushu county’s 100,000 people reside.
Rescuers were still discovering the odd survivor, including a 13-year-old girl buried in a hotel, in images shown live on state television.
At least 294 people are still listed as missing, and 1,176 as “seriously injured.”
“I think (of my mother) but I have to control myself and not cry. I can only pray for her safety (in the afterlife),” said survivor Chenlin Cuoma, 27, sitting in front of a makeshift tent alongside her younger sister.
“After having lost her that day, I can only wish she can go to heaven and not think of anything else or have any regrets.”
More than 1,000 seriously injured survivors have been evacuated for treatment at much larger nearby cities such as provincial capital Xining, some 800 km (500 miles) from Yushu, and many of them by air, the Health Ministry said.
Chinese President Hu Jintao cut short a summit in Brazil this week, and cancelled a planned trip to Venezuela and Chile in order to return early to China to oversee quake relief efforts.
Additional reporting by Liu Zhen, Lucy Hornby, Yu Le and Huang Yan in BEIJING; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Alex Richardson