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Thousands of people are forced out of their homes after 7.1 quake in western China

By KEN MORITSUGU and NG HAN GUAN, KEN MORITSUGU and NG HAN GUAN, Associated Press
Published: January 24, 2024, 8:11am
3 Photos
Residents eat a meal at a shelter in Yamansu township of Uchturpan county, Aksu prefecture in western China&rsquo;s Xinjiang region, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. As aftershocks continued to rock western China on Wednesday, thousands of people were staying in tents and other shelters, lighting bonfires to fend off the freezing weather.
Residents eat a meal at a shelter in Yamansu township of Uchturpan county, Aksu prefecture in western China’s Xinjiang region, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. As aftershocks continued to rock western China on Wednesday, thousands of people were staying in tents and other shelters, lighting bonfires to fend off the freezing weather. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan) Photo Gallery

UCHTURPAN, China (AP) — As aftershocks from an earthquake continued to rock western China on Wednesday, more than 12,000 people were staying in tents and sturdier shelters, lighting bonfires to fend off the freezing weather.

The previous day, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in a remote part of China’s Xinjiang region killed three people and left five injured, while damaging hundreds of buildings.

The quake caused significant damage, but the toll on lives and property was relatively light, owing to the sparse population and efforts in recent years to improve the durability of housing around the epicenter in Uchturpan county, near the border with Kyrgyzstan.

Footage shown by state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday showed evacuees eating instant noodles in tents, with bonfires providing heat.

Jian Gewa, a 16-year old student in Uchturpan, said he was in the bathroom when the quake began. The entire building shook violently.

“I just thought I had to get myself to safety as quickly as possible,” Jian said.

He was evacuated to a school where he was staying in a dorm room with his grandfather, joining about 200 others. Local officials said they planned to check houses for stability before people could return.

The earthquake hit in a sparsely populated area with clusters of towns and villages scattered across an otherwise barren winter landscape. A two-lane highway runs from the city of Aksu about 125 kilometers (78 miles) to the area, through frozen brown flatlands on one side and craggy outcroppings on the other. Power lines and an occasional cement factory are virtually the only signs of human presence.

In Kizilsu Kirgiz prefecture, the earthquake caused damage of various degrees to 851 buildings, causing the collapse of 93 structures near the epicenter and killing 910 livestock, according to the prefecture deputy party secretary, Wurouziali Haxihaerbayi.

The area is populated mostly by Kyrgyz and Uyghurs, ethnic Turkic minorities who are predominantly Muslim and have been the target of a state campaign of forced assimilation and mass detention. The region is heavily militarized, and state broadcaster CCTV showed paramilitary troops moving in before dawn to clear rubble and set up tents for those displaced.

Two of the three people who died were members of a Kyrgyz sheep herding family who had brought their flock up the mountain and spent the night in their rest hut, said Shi Chao, the Communist Party head of Kulansarike township.

Rescuers found the family of three, including a 6-year old girl, and brought them down the mountain but only the father survived, Shi said.

The township has been replacing the huts with sturdier structures partially subsidized by the government, he said. The third death happened elsewhere in Akqi county.

The prefecture has deployed more than 2,300 rescuers, and Akqi county evacuated 7,338 residents. In total, 12,426 people have been evacuated.

Rescue crews combed through the rubble while emergency survival gear including coats and tents arrived to help the thousands of people who fled their homes.

“This 7.1 rating is very strong, but the death and injury situation is not severe,” Zhang Yongjiu, the head of Xinjiang Earthquake Administration, told a news conference.

The quake’s epicenter was in a mountainous area about 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) above sea level, Zhang said.

In the township of Yamansu, about 115 people were staying in a Communist Party meeting hall on Wednesday morning, their bedding neatly rolled up on top of five long rows of metal bed frames. Medical staff were on hand to check on older residents.

A grandmother fed one of her grandchildren on one of the beds, while an older one slurped instant noodles.

Outside, men chatted around a large metal wood-burning cooker with a stove pipe, two wearing chef’s toques. Chunks of meat and vegetables in large plastic and metal containers sat on two weathered desks set up outside.

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A light layer of snow covered the frozen ground as temperatures remained well below freezing, although the sunshine brought people outside.

The quake hit shortly after 2 a.m. on Tuesday. By evening, authorities said three people had died and five were injured, two seriously.

State broadcaster CCTV said 1,104 aftershocks, including five that were above magnitude 5.0, were recorded as of 8:00 a.m. Wednesday. The largest registered at magnitude 5.7.

Among the buildings damaged, 47 houses had collapsed, the government of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region posted on its official Weibo social media account Tuesday.

Officials said most of the houses that collapsed were in remote areas and were built by residents. Newer public housing built by the government did not collapse.

In Yamansu, most of the damage was to shelters for animals and exterior property walls, which are made of cement-covered bricks and not as sturdy as the homes. Some of the houses had minor damage, and residents in the hardest-hit area were told to stay in shelters until authorities complete inspections.

Footage broadcast by CCTV showed staff at Aksu’s train station ordering passengers out of the waiting hall in a speedy but not panicked manner.

The mountainous Uchturpan county is recording temperatures well below freezing, with the China Meteorological Administration forecasting lows reaching minus 18 degrees Celsius (just below zero Fahrenheit) this week.

The county had a population of around 233,000 in 2022, according to Xinjiang authorities.

The quake downed power lines but electricity was quickly restored, Aksu authorities said. The Urumqi Railroad Bureau resumed services after 7 a.m. following safety checks that confirmed no problems on train lines. The suspension affected 23 trains, the bureau serving the Xinjiang capital said on its official Weibo account.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the area’s largest quake in the past century was also magnitude 7.1 and occurred in 1978, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) to the north of Tuesday’s epicenter.

Tremors were felt hundreds of kilometers (miles) away.

Tremors also were felt in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and reportedly as far away as New Delhi. Videos posted on the Telegram messaging platform showed people in the Kazakh city of Almaty running downstairs in apartment blocks and standing in the street, some of them wearing shorts in the freezing weather.

In Xinjiang and Kazakhstan, classes were suspended to allow children to recover from the shock.

Earthquakes are common in western China.

A 6.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Gansu province in December killed 151 people and was China’s deadliest quake in nine years. An earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008 killed nearly 90,000.

Elsewhere, authorities raised the confirmed death toll to 31 on Tuesday in a landslide in a remote, mountainous part of China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, Chinese state media reported.

The disaster struck just before 6 a.m. on Monday in the mountain village of Liangshui. Authorities said Tuesday that a total of 44 people were either missing or had been found dead.

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