Several foreign disaster relief teams arrived in China on Friday [EPA]

Chinese authorities are expecting the toll from the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Sichuan province this week to rise above 50,000, state media says.

 

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Officials have confirmed 20,000 deaths four days after the quake and believe another 25,000 people could be buried under the rubble in the towns and villages across the worst-hit region in China's southwest as hopes of finding survivors diminish by the hour.

 

"The deaths are estimated to be over 50,000," state television said, citing figures from the national quake relief headquarters.

 

Half the epicentre town of Yingxiu, where corpses are lined along the river, has been flattened and 90 per cent of the buildings remaining look unsafe.

 

Bai Licheng, a Communist party official, warned that epidemics could break out if bodies were not buried soon, saying body bad were urgently needed.

 

"Air-dropped food and drinking water are limited and far from meeting the demand," he told the state-run Xinhua news agency.

 

Foreign teams 


Beijing has now welcomed outside assistance despite initially saying that foreign rescue teams would not be needed.

 

The government has deployed 130,000 troops and paramilitaries to help in the relief efforts, and provincial authorities have said they can tackle the crisis, but disaster relief experts say that specialised teams are crucial to rescue work. 

 

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On Friday, specialised disaster relief teams from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Singapore were allowed in while other countries who have offered help are still awaiting approval.

 

So far the international community has pledged monetary and material assistance totalling $110m for the disaster in the Chinese province the size of France.

 

On Thursday China asked the US for high-resolution satellite images of Sichuan to help locate victims and identify seriously-damaged roads and infrastructure, according to officials from both sides.

 

State-run television reported that the authorities had found "dangerous situations" at more than 400 reservoirs – two of them major – across five provinces.

 

But hopes are fading of finding survivors as the crucial first 72 hours since the quake struck have passed.

 

Shift in focus

 

Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan, reporting from Sichuan province, said there had been a shift in the tone and focus in the relief operations, with crews mostly pulling bodies out from the rubble and burying the dead to prevent the spread of disease.

 

But Wen Jiabao, the premier who has been touring the disaster zone since Monday, urging on workers and comforting orphaned children, said "saving lives is still our top priority, as long as hope of survival still exists".

 

Wen described the quake as the most
destructive since 1949 [GALLO/GETTY]

Describing Monday's earthquake as the "most destructive" with the "most wide-spreading impact" since 1949, Wen, himself a geologist, said the rescue operation and disaster relief for victims of the earthquake were China's top priority as he hailed the "order the country has maintained".

 

The premier also reportedly warned authorities to pay special attention to the prevention of plagues, and for supplies of food, medicines, and tents to be ensured.

 

However, in some villages near the badly-hit mountainous area of Beichuan, angry residents complained they had had little to eat and were forced to drink contaminated water.

 

State media said on Friday that Hu Jintao, the president, had also flown to the quake zone.

 

Xinhua said three mountainous towns north of the provincial capital of Chengdu were still cut off, and that 20,000 residents remained buried in rubble in the towns of Qingping, Jinhua and Tianchi.

 

Willie McMartin, director of the UK-based charity International Rescue Corps, said most people are found alive "in the first three or four days".

 

"People can survive up to 15 days, but that is when you are talking about miracles, and miracles do not happen very often," he told AFP in Hong Kong where his team is trying to get permission to enter China.