Sichuan quake kills more than 150

BEIJING — More than 150 people have been killed in a powerful earthquake that jolted China's Sichuan province on Saturday near where a devastating quake killed thousands five years ago.

People attempt to move a huge rock blocking the road to Longmen township, an area close to the epicentre of Saturday's earthquake. (AFP Photo)

More than 3,000 people were reported hurt, prompting worries the death toll will climb.

The shallow earthquake struck Sichuan on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau just after 8am local time, triggering a major rescue operation in the province where 87,000 people were reported dead or missing five years ago.

Twelve hours after the quake hit Lushan county in the city of Ya'an, the death toll stood at 152, CCTV news said, quoting the China Earthquake Administration.

At least 10,000 homes were destroyed, the Sichuan government said, and more than 260 aftershocks were recorded.

Soldiers take a break from rsecue work amid the ruins of a house in Longmen township. (AFP Photo)

Local seismologists registered the quake at magnitude 7.0 while the US Geological Survey gave it as 6.6. More than 260 aftershocks followed, the People's Daily said.

The shaking was felt in the provincial capital Chengdu, which lies to the east, and even in the megacity of Chongqing several hundred kilometres away.

Panicked residents fled into the streets, some of them still in their slippers and pyjamas.

"Members of my family were woken up. They were lying in bed when the strong shaking began and the wardrobes began shaking strongly," said a 43-year-old Chongqing resident surnamed Wang. "We grabbed our clothes and ran outside."

About 6,000 soldiers and police were heading to the area to help rescue work, the Xinhua news agency said.

Some had to contend with roads blocked by debris, CCTV reported, while one military vehicle carrying 17 troops plummeted over a cliff, killing one soldier and injuring seven others, Xinhua said.

"There are mountains on all sides, it is very easy to trigger mudslides and very dangerous," one user wrote on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

The disaster evoked comparisons to the 2008 Sichuan quake, the country's worst in decades, and President Xi Jinping ordered all out efforts to minimise casualties, Xinhua said.

Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Sichuan in the afternoon and was taking a helicopter to the quake zone.

"The current most urgent issue is grasping the first 24 hours since the quake's occurrence, the golden time for saving lives," he was quoted as saying.

Amid the rescue efforts, a 30-year-old pregnant woman surnamed Zhao was pulled out of the rubble along with a young child and sent to hospital for treatment, the People's Daily said.

A local TV journalist due to get married on Saturday turned up instead for work and a photograph of her reporting on the disaster in her wedding dress with bright makeup and a corsage was widely circulated on Weibo.

The Lushan county power grid has been disrupted and phone services were only partially available, the authorities said. State media said some text and internet services were working.

A person whose posts to a micro-blogging account "Qingyi Riverside" on Sina Weibo carried a Lushan geotag said that many buildings collapsed and that people could spot helicopters hovering above.

Aerial photos released by China's military and shown on state television showed individual houses in ruins and some stretches of the county seat and villages flattened into rubble.

The roofs of some taller buildings appeared to have slipped off exposing the floors beneath them.

The earthquake's shallow depth, less than 13 kilometres, likely magnified the impact and CCTV showed footage from local security cameras shaking. Xinhua said that the quake rattled buildings in the provincial capital of Chengdu 115 km to the east.

Lushan, where the quake struck, is home to 1.5 million people where the fertile Sichuan plain meets foothills that eventually rise to the Tibetan plateau.

The area is near a well-known preserve for pandas, Bifengxia, which Xinhua said was not affected by the quake. Dozens of pandas were moved to Bifengxia from another preserve, Wolong, after its habitat was wrecked by the 2008 quake.

Pandas at a reserve fewer than 50 kilometres from the epicentre were not harmed, Xinhua said, citing an employee.

Social media users who said they were in Lushan county posted photos of collapsed buildings and reported that water and electricity had been cut off. At least 10 aftershocks — some of them at magnitude-5 or higher — shook the area.

"It's too dangerous," said a person with the Weibo account Chengduxinglin and with a Lushan geotag. "Even the aftershocks are scary."

The area lies near the same Longmenshan fault where the devastating 7.9-magnitude quake struck May 12, 2008, leaving more than 90,000 people dead or missing and presumed dead.

"It was just like May 12," said Liu Xi, a writer in Ya'an city, who was jolted awake by Saturday's quake. "All the home decorations fell at once, and the old house cracked."

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Writer: AFP and Associated Press