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Aid airlift to victims; Quake's worst-hit areas targeted.

Byline: By TIM WALSH

CHINA began airlifting aid today to the areas worst hit by a massive earthquake, as new reports of casualties were poised to push the death toll close to 20,000.

The shocking new figure includes nearly 80% of one town's population.

The official Xinhua News Agency said 7,700 people died in Yingxiu town in Wenchuan county, the epicentre of Monday's 7.9-magnitude earthquake. The number was believed to be in addition to the previously reported death toll of more than 12,000.

Government officials said rescuers who hiked into Yingxiu today found it "much worse than expected". Of the town's population of about 10,000, only 2,300 had survived, and 1,000 of them were badly hurt.

The government and its state media has not been clear on death tolls, with some figures not added in, or overlapping with other numbers.

Meanwhile British holidaymakers in the region hit by the earthquake remained out of contact as attempts to find them continued today.

There has been no news on the whereabouts of at least 19 British holidaymakers who were travelling in the worst hit region of the country.

The 19 were clients of Travel Collection, which is part of holiday company Kuoni, and were in Wenchuan county on a coach trip when the earthquake struck.

A team of British experts from the International Rescue Corps (IRC) are due to arrive in Hong Kong today before being taken by helicopter to an as-yet undecided location.

The Foreign Office said it has so far had no reports of any British casualties, but officials are attempting to make contact with a number of missing people.

While Kuoni and the Foreign Office sought news of the group, UK travel organisation Abta was able to say that at least 100 UK tourists travelling in the earthquake region of Sichuan province were safe and unhurt.

The 19 Kuoni tourists were travelling by coach from Chengdu to Wolong in Wenchuan county in the Sichuan province with a local guide and driver.

A Kuoni spokesman said: "All lines of communication to the region are down and as such no further information is known at this time. We are working closely with the British Consulate in China."

Elsewhere in the area north of Chengdu, there were sad scenes of relatives crying over bodies of loved ones.

In Hanwang, about 60 bodies wrapped in plastic were laid out as sobbing relatives walked among them.

Mianyang, an industrial city of 700,000 people and home to the headquarters of China's nuclear weapons design industry, had turned into a thronging refugee camp.

The government's high-gear response aimed to reassure Chinese while showing the world it was capable of handling the disaster and was ready for the August 8-24 Olympics in Beijing.

CAPTION(S):

SCARED: A trapped youth from Beichuan middle school waits for rescuers to pull him out of the rubble; SAFE: A rescuer pulls a little girl out of the rubble in Beichuan County, just east of the epicentre of the earthquake
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 14, 2008
Words:506
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