CHENGDU • China yesterday evacuated tens of thousands of people in its mountainous south-west after a strong earthquake killed at least 19 people, rattling a region where memories of a 2008 seismic disaster remain fresh.
The 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan province late on Tuesday, tearing cracks in mountain highways, triggering landslides, damaging buildings and sending panicked residents and tourists fleeing into the open.
A separate quake of magnitude 6.3 shook the far-western border region of Xinjiang yesterday morning, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS). The quake injured 32 people and damaged more than 1,000 homes, Xinhua said.
Over in Sichuan, the provincial government said yesterday that most of the tourists - many stranded at a popular national park near the epicentre - have been evacuated after spending a nervous night out in the open as more than 1,000 aftershocks rippled across the region. Locals will also be moved to safer ground, according to the authorities.
The area's difficult geography - and travel restrictions quickly imposed by the authorities - have so far prevented a clear picture of the scale of the disaster from emerging, but there were no reports of catastrophic damage or large-scale casualties by yesterday afternoon.
The quake killed at least 19 people and injured at least 247, 40 of them seriously, said the local government of Aba prefecture, where the epicentre was located.
The dead included eight tourists state television said. Two foreigners, a Frenchman and a Canadian woman, were among the injured.
The Aba government said 1,680 private homes across Jiuzhaigou county's 17 townships suffered varying degrees of damage.
Images on social media and from state news outlets showed cars and buses tossed into ravines or crushed by giant boulders and rescue personnel combing through rubble for victims.
The quake's epicentre was near Jiuzhaigou, a national park and Unesco World Heritage site famed for its karst rock formations, waterfalls and lakes.
Aerial footage broadcast by the the state-run Xinhua news agency showed picturesque green- forested mountains now scarred by huge gouges from giant landslides that sent clouds of dust into the air.
Xinhua said at least five of the deaths occurred there, and that more than 30,000 people had been evacuated from Jiuzhaigou alone.
"Nearly all the tourists are being evacuated," a Jiuzhaigou tour company employee, who gave only her surname, Yan, told Agence France- Presse by phone.
"We slept overnight in tour buses and have been staying in the open ground. Landslides are pretty bad, rocks keep falling down."
President Xi Jinping called for "all-out efforts to rapidly organise relief work and rescue the injured" in the Sichuan quake.
Hundreds of soldiers and rescue personnel had been deployed to the Jiuzhaigou area, along with hundreds of vehicles and dozens of sniffer dogs and devices used to detect life underneath rubble.
The quake struck at a shallow depth of 10km, the USGS said, and was reportedly felt hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre. Shallow quakes tend to cause more surface damage.
It evoked memories of a massive 8.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated wide areas of the same region in 2008, leaving 87,000 people dead or missing in China's worst seismic disaster in a generation.
"I was also in Jiuzhaigou in 2008 during the last big quake, so I knew what it was. This felt even stronger," local restaurant owner Tang Sesheng told AFP by phone.
"People didn't dare grab anything like money or clothes - we just all ran outside right away."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS