A huge earthquake rocked southwest China on Monday, killing nearly 8,700 people and flattening schools, homes and factories in a powerful tremor felt across a swathe of southeast Asia.
The quake, with a magnitude of 7.8, struck close to densely populated areas of Sichuan province in what Premier Wen Jiabao called a "major disaster."
China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported 8,533 confirmed dead in that province alone, but there were fears the toll will rise far higher with scores killed in neighbouring regions and reports of hundreds buried under debris.
Buildings swayed in Beijing and Shanghai, while the quake was felt in Hong Kong, Vietnam and in the Thai capital Bangkok, 1,800 kilometres (1,200 miles) from the epicentre.
Xinhua cited disaster relief officials as saying 3,000 to 5,000 people were estimated to have died in one district of Sichuan, Beichuan County, where 80 percent of buildings had collapsed.
"Facing disaster, the most important thing is calm, confidence, courage and strong leadership," Wen told China's CCTV television on a plane to Chengdu to oversee rescue operations.
There was still no news from Wenchuan County, the mountainous region at the epicentre, more than nine hours after the disaster struck. All lines of communication were cut with the county, which has a population of 112,000 and is home to the Wolong Nature Reserve, China's leading research and breeding base for endangered giant pandas. "We are doing everything we can but the roads are blanketed with rocks and boulders," Xinhua quoted Li Chongxi, a Communist Party official, as saying.
President George W. Bush expressed his condolences and said the United States "stands ready to help," and Japan said it was ready to provide as much relief aid as possible.
The quake damaged two chemical plants in Shifeng, burying several hundred people and forcing the evacuation of more than 6,000 nearby, Xinhua said. Up to 900 students were buried under a collapsed high school in Dujiangyan, northwest of Chengdu. Rescuers recovered at least 50 bodies.
A local official in the Dujiangyan said "rows of houses" had crumbled, while two primary schools were demolished in the sprawling metropolis of Chongqing.
Chinese President Hu Jintao urged an "all-out" effort to rescue victims. Troops were ordered to help with the disaster relief work. All trains to and from Chengdu were stopped, the city's airport was closed and planes diverted for engineers to assess the runways, and mobile phone and Internet communications were disrupted.
An Olympic spokesman said none of the 31 venues for the Beijing Olympics in the capital and other host cities had been damaged.
The quake's epicentre was about 93 kilometres from Chengdu, a city of more than 12 million people, and 260 kilometres from Chongqing and its 30 million. It struck shortly before 2.30 pm (0630 GMT) at a depth of just 10 kilometres, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
Xinhua quoted an official saying the landmark Three Gorges Dam in Sichuan province had not been affected. However, buildings shook in Beijing and Shanghai, residents reported, with many people evacuating tower blocks and rushing onto the street. The quake was felt in the Taiwanese capital Taipei, where buildings swayed for half a minute, and in the southern Chinese territory of Hong Kong. -- by Peter Harmsen
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2008