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China says quake's toll may top 80,000

The U.N. chief offered support as the nation suggested many of the missing might not live.

YINGXIU, China - China warned yesterday that the death toll from a massive earthquake two weeks ago could take a major leap and pass 80,000, suggesting the government may be giving up hope of finding more survivors.

But rescuers rushed anyway to reach 24 coal miners who officials said were trapped in three mines by the disaster, though it was not known whether the miners were alive.

"We have had the miracle in the past that a miner was found alive after being trapped underground for 21 days," Wang Dexue, the deputy chief of the government's work safety department, told a Beijing news conference. "We are carrying out rescue work on the assumption that they are still alive. We absolutely will not give up."

Wang gave no further details of the miners. China's mines are the world's deadliest, with explosions, cave-ins and floods killing nearly 3,800 people last year.

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a brief visit yesterday to one of the hardest-hit towns, Yingxiu - a helicopter ride that offered a rare bird's-eye view of the destruction wrought by the 7.9-magnitude quake on May 12.

The mountains in central Sichuan province showed huge tracks of naked earth from landslides. Layers of mud covered fields. Rivers churned brown. Yingxiu was largely piles of rubble, and the buildings left standing had caved in, giving the surreal impression that they had melted.

The State Council, China's cabinet, said yesterday that the latest confirmed death toll for the quake - China's biggest disaster in three decades - was 60,560, with 26,221 people missing.

Premier Wen Jiabao, on a return visit to the quake zone to accompany Ban, warned that the toll could go much higher.

"It may further climb to a level of 70,000, 80,000 or more," Wen said, standing amid the rubble in Yingxiu. The jump could occur as the number of missing are added to the number of dead.

About 15 minutes before Wen started talking, yet another minor aftershock rumbled.

Ban, who came to China directly from cyclone-stricken Myanmar, promised that the United Nations would help with reconstruction and that it was waiting for China's assessment of what was needed.

"If we work hard, we can overcome this," Ban said, with Wen at his side. "The whole world stands behind you and supports you."

The secretary-general left China later yesterday and was to attend an aid donors' conference today in Myanmar for cyclone victims.

About 4,800 of Yingxiu's 18,000 people were killed in the quake, a military officer told Ban during a tour. Reporters could see government workers in hooded white protective suits spraying disinfectant on the rubble.

Underscoring doubts that more survivors would be found, Wen said the government's focus had shifted from rescue to rebuilding.

"Previously our main priority was the search and rescue of affected people," Wen said. "Our priority now is to resettle the affected people and to make plans for post-quake reconstruction."

It won't be easy. The quake destroyed more than 15 million homes, Wen said. He said the government needed 900,000 tents and urged Chinese manufacturers to make 30,000 a day.

As the government grappled with the task of rebuilding - a process Sichuan Vice Governor Li Chengyun has said could take three years - it also watched for a variety of secondary disasters.

Experts searched for 15 radiation sources buried in the rubble, although they said there were no leaks or public health risks. And survivors left flood-risk areas downstream from rivers that had been dammed by landslides.

With their water pooling and the rainy season coming, the "quake lakes" could breach the earthen barriers and sweep down already fragile valleys.

Meanwhile, about 10,000 medical workers have been dispatched to prevent disease outbreaks.

"The second major challenge facing us is epidemic prevention and control," Wen said, adding that no outbreaks had been reported so far.

Pandas in Quake Area

Eight pandas

reached Beijing safely yesterday after a special flight from their damaged reserve near the epicenter of the May 12 earthquake in China.

They will spend

the next six months at the Beijing Zoo on an Olympics visit that was planned long before the quake.

They have been

closely watched because they seemed nervous after the quake, sometimes eating and sleeping less. But the pandas appeared lively after they were moved into their exhibit at the zoo, even putting their paws on the glass wall.

Their home at the world-famous Wolong reserve was badly damaged in the quake, which was centered just 20 miles away in a damp region of narrow, winding mountain roads.

Five reserve staff members

were killed in the quake, and two pandas are missing.

The government arranged

an emergency shipment of about five tons of bamboo for the nearly 60 hungry pandas still at Wolong.

- Associated Press