By ANITA CHANG
A Tibetan Buddhist monk leads the way as a man carries a young girl after she was lifted from the rubble of an earthquake as she is rescued after being buried for more than two-days in Yushu county, west China's Qinghai province, Friday, April 16, 2010. Tibetan monks prayed over hundreds of bodies Friday at a makeshift morgue next to their monastery after powerful earthquakes destroyed the remote mountain town of Jiegu (Tib:Kyegudo) in western China and left at least 1000 people dead.
Tibetans broke with local burial traditions and began cremating the victims of an earthquake that struck western China more than 72 hours ago as police stepped up security Saturday to avoid looting of relief materials.
The central government has poured in troops and equipment to this remote western region in a bid to find any remaining survivors, with officials saying the death toll had climbed to 1,144.
There has been tension and some distrust over the government relief effort, which have been slowed by heavy traffic on the single main road from the Qinghai provincial capital, 12 hours away.
The quakes struck an ethnic Tibetan area, and Tibetans traditionally perform sky burials, which involve chopping a body into pieces and leaving it on a platform to be devoured by vultures. But Genqiu, who like many Tibetans goes by one name, said that would be impossible now.
"The vultures can't eat them all," he said at Jiegu monastery, where bodies were carefully wrapped in colorful blankets and piled three or four deep on a platform.
The government has set up a place to cremate bodies, said Geng Yang, the head of the provincial Civil Affairs Department.
"We have cremated 33 bodies so far," Geng said.
Police said they had increased security at areas were relief supplies were being handed out.
"We will severely attack the looting of disaster relief materials and the stealing of victims' property," provincial Deputy Police Chief Liu Tianhui told a news conference held in a tent in Jiegu on Saturday morning.
Liu said there were cases of looting right after the quake Wednesday, but that the situation had improved and "is stable now."
He said the biggest challenge was still getting enough clean drinking water and food for estimated 100,000 people affected by earthquake.
Though the government was reaching out, many residents turned instead to the monks and their traditions, rather than a central authority dominated by the majority Han Chinese. The groups are divided by language — the government has had to mobilize hundreds of Tibetan speakers to communicate with victims — as well as culture and religion.
Cultural differences might have contributed to Friday's sharp rise in the death toll. In a telephone call with The Associated Press on Friday, rescue officials seemed surprised to hear that hundreds of bodies were at the Jiegu monastery, taken there by Buddhist families. The new official death toll was announced hours later.
Residents of the largely Tibetan town pointed out repeatedly that after the series of earthquakes Wednesday, the monks were the first to come to their aid — pulling people from the rubble and passing out their own limited supplies.
Yushu county, the area impacted by the quakes, is overwhelmingly Tibetan — 93 percent by official statistics, though that does not include Han migrants who have moved in temporarily to open restaurants, take construction jobs or work in mines.
The area largely escaped the unrest that swept the Tibetan plateau in 2008. But authorities have periodically sealed off the area to foreign media and tourists.
There was no word Saturday if anymore survivors had been found. China Central Television reported that a 13-year-old girl was pulled from a toppled two-story hotel on Friday after a sniffer dog alerted rescuers.
State media said more equipment to check for signs of life was on the way, along with 40,000 tents — enough to accommodate all the survivors.Associated Press writer Chi-Chi Zhang in Beijing contributed to this report.