Hundreds of quake victims were cremated in Jiegu as a traditional sky burial was not possible [AFP]

The death toll from last week's earthquake in western China's Qinghai province has risen to at least 1,144, with at least 400 missing, rescue officials have said.

The 6.9 magnitude tremor struck on Wednesday in Yushu county, high on the Tibetan plateau, bringing down hundreds of buildings.

On Saturday the bodies of hundreds of victims were disposed of in mass cremations as officials warned that there was little possibility of finding more survivors.

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Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan reports on the quake's impact on a Qinghai monastery

As the cremations began the AFP news agency reported hundreds of bodies laid out on the floor of a warehouse-like structure at a Buddhist monastery overlooking the hard-hit town of town of Jiegu, not far from the quake's epicentre.

It comes as residents expressed fears of outbreaks of disease caused by large numbers of human and animal bodies left rotting in the open.

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

But Genqiu, a Buddhist monk, told the Associated Press that it would be impossible to follow the practice given the large numbers of dead.

"The vultures can't eat them all," he said at the Jiegu monastery, where the bodies were carefully wrapped in colourful blankets.

Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan, reporting from Jiegu, said it would be a very remote possibility that rescuers would find anyone else alive.

From our correspondent

"It's too cold for anyone to survive under the rubble, and exposed to the freezing temperatures here," she said.

Relief operations however are slowly building up as rescuers continue to face difficulties accessing the remote area.

Thousands of survivors have waited in the bitter cold for large-scale shipments of food and other aid, having spent two nights out in the open with many buildings collapsed or too unsafe to return to.

Since Wednesday's quake, government relief efforts have been slowed by heavy traffic on the single main road from the Qinghai provincial capital, 12 hours drive away.

But on Friday, excavators and other heavy equipment were among the machinery trickling into town.

However, they remained unequal to the scale of the destruction in Jiegu, and locals continued to pick frantically through collapsed buildings, many using their bare hands.

Also on Friday Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, wrapped up a two-day tour of the disaster area by casting recovery efforts as a chance to foster unity in a region where relations between the region's Buddhist ethnic Tibetans and its Han Chinese population have been strained.

"We can overcome the disaster and improve national unity in fighting the calamity," Wen was quoted as saying by local media.

State media also reported that the dead included 103 students and 12 teachers as schools collapsed, with dozens more buried or missing.

The casualties recalled the devastating 2008 earthquake in neighbouring Sichuan province, in which thousands of students were among the 87,000 killed or missing in that disaster amid allegations that sub-standard construction work was to blame.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies