ANXIAN, China - Soldiers hauled explosives deep into China's disaster zone yesterday to blow up earthquake debris blocking a river whose rising waters threatened to flood already-devastated towns and villages.

Storms forecast for the region, meanwhile, added to concerns that rain would put more pressure on weakened dams and reservoirs and cause spillovers from new lakes that have built up behind debris from the earthquake.

The number of deaths from the quake climbed toward an expected final toll of 80,000 or more. The Cabinet said 65,080 people were confirmed killed, and 23,150 people remained missing.

Thousands of people had been evacuated from an area downstream from one of the new lakes that was created by a landslide near Beichuan, a town hit hard by the May 12 tremor that devastated Sichuan province.

Some 1,800 soldiers, each carrying 22 pounds of explosives, clambered up mountain paths to reach the new lake - already named Tangjiashan - with plans to blast through the debris and drain the water, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The troops didn't arrive until late yesterday, and the blasting was not expected until today at the earliest.

The lake, fed by the Qingzhu River, lay two miles upstream from the center of Beichuan county.

With better weather allowing helicopter flights, heavy equipment was also delivered to the area to help remove debris, state media reported.

Tangjiashan lake is one of dozens caused when the magnitude-7.9 quake sent millions of tons of earth and rock tumbling into some of the region's narrow valleys. Rising waters have already swallowed some villages.

"The water was covering the road, and two days later I could not see the roof of my house anymore," said Liu Zhongfu, standing on a hillside looking down at another of the new lakes, which submerged the town of Shuangdian.

A sofa and bits of wood that were once part of houses could be seen floating among the debris in the milky green water. Villagers said they also had seen corpses in the water in recent days.

Liu, a 31-year-old truck driver, was working away from home when the earthquake hit, causing a landslide that cut the Chaping River in An county, about 30 miles south of Beichuan. His wife, 3-month-old daughter and 60-year-old mother escaped unhurt.

"I thought I could go back but I have nothing now. My village, it's all become a sea," he said. "I'm trying to see my house for one last memory."

Pressure is building behind the mounds of earth and rubble as rivers and streams feed into the newly formed lakes. Officials fear the walls of loose soil and debris could crumble easily, especially once the water level reaches the top and begins cascading over. *