The most powerful earthquake to hit China in 30 years, registered at a magnitude of 7.9, has killed at least 10,000 people in the south-western Sichuan province, with thousands more trapped and injured, says the BBC and news agencies.
Chinese state media said that 10,000 people were buried in one town alone near the epicentre of the quake in Wenchuan County.Premier Wen Jiabao has called for urgent efforts to reach cut-off areas.
"The situation is worse than we previously estimated and we need more people here to help," he declared.
Speaking from the disaster relief headquarters northwest of Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu, he said roads to towns at the quake's epicentre had to be cleared.
"People's lives and property safety are the top priorities and many people are still trapped in debris," Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying. "We must treasure every second and do our utmost to save survivors."
The number of dead is expected to rise as rescue workers access worst-hit areas. In one county alone, 80 per cent of buildings were destroyed and up to 5,000 people died.
It remains to be seen whether and to what extent China will be willing accept foreign aid, already offered by President Bush in the US and by European leaders. The fact that the country is openly addressing the disaster and has not refused all help outright is seen as a positive development.
Native Chinese communities in Seattle and elsewhere across the world are watching the situation unfold with alarm, as many have relatives caught up in the emergency.