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An earthquake that Chinese officials measured at magnitude 7.1 rocked a remote, mostly Tibetan-populated county in western China early Wednesday, killing at least 400 people and injuring at least 8,000, according to state television reports.

The quake struck in Qinghai province about 20 miles from the county seat of Yushu, where it toppled houses, an elementary school and part of a Buddhist tower in a public park and seriously damaged the main hospital in town, officials told Chinese media.

“In a flash, the houses went down. It was a terrible earthquake,” one witness said.

Yushu is about 500 miles southwest of Qinghai’s capital, Xining, and has a mostly Tibetan population of 100,000 people, many of them herdsmen in the mountainous, rural area.

Numerous houses made of mud and logs in the traditional manner collapsed during the quake and its aftershocks.

“The death toll may rise further as lots of houses collapsed,” army commander Wu Yong told the state-run China Daily. “Roads leading to the airport have been damaged, hampering the rescue effort.”

In Jiegu, a township near the epicenter, more than 85% of the houses had collapsed, said Zhuo Huaxia, a local Tibetan official.

“Many are buried in the collapsed houses,” he told the official New China News Agency. “There are still lots of others who are injured and being treated at local hospitals.”

With phone lines down, rescuers also were hindered by telecommunications problems slowing attempts at coordination. State TV showed footage of paramilitary police using shovels to dig around a house with a collapsed wooden roof. A local military official, Shi Huajie, told state broadcaster CCTV that rescuers were working with limited equipment.

“We don’t have any excavators. Many of the people have been buried, and our soldiers are trying to pull them out,” Shi said. “It is very difficult to save people with our bare hands.”

Five thousand tents and 100,000 thick, cotton coats and blankets were being sent to help survivors cope with strong winds and temperatures of about 43 degrees Fahrenheit, the Qinghai provincial government said.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake measured a magnitude 6.9.

There were at least six aftershocks, the strongest a magnitude 6.2.

In 2008, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake in neighboring Sichuan province left almost 90,000 people dead or missing.LAT

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