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 that 65,080 people had been confirmed killed and 23,150 remained missing.

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

About 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 arrived 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 formed 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 parts of houses floated among the debris in the milky green water.

"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 reaches the top and begins cascading over.

Adding to the threat, thunderstorms were forecast for parts of Sichuan this week, a foretaste of the coming summer rainy season that accounts for more than 70 percent of the 2 feet of rain that falls on the area each year.

The storms "could increase the risks posed by river blockages in some quake-hit areas," the China Meteorological Administration said.

The Water Resources Ministry said three small reservoirs in Shaanxi province, just north of Sichuan, were in danger of collapse after a strong aftershock Sunday, the latest of dozens that have rumbled across the region since May 12. A total of 2,383 reservoirs were in danger across the country, the ministry said.

Elsewhere, 600 people were evacuated from Guanzhuang in Qingchuan County because of landslide worries. "There's no danger for this exact moment from flooding, but we are very worried because the whole mountain is loose," said Ma Jian, a local official.

At a meeting presided over by President Hu Jintao, China's top Communist Party leaders signed off on plans to shift the huge relief effort's focus from rescue to resettlement and reconstruction.

Survivors were plucked from crumbled buildings for more than a week after the quake, though the number of such tales has dwindled. Meanwhile, tent cities - some government-organized, some makeshift - have sprouted across the disaster zone, where five million people were left homeless.

In Qingchuan city, hundreds of survivors were living in a mix of lean-tos and government-provided tents in a public square. People crowded four or eight to a tent were being given bottled water and packets of instant noodles.

Families That Lost Children Exempted From China's 'One Child' Policy

Chinese officials

said that the country's one-child policy would exempt families with a child who was killed, severely injured or disabled in the country's devastating earthquake.

Those families

can obtain a certificate to have another child, the Chengdu Population and Family Planning Committee in the capital of hard-hit Sichuan province said.

With so many

shattered families asking questions, the Chengdu committee said it was clarifying the child policy, a committee official said.

The announcement

said that if the couple's legally born child is killed and the couple is left with an illegally born child under the age of 18, that child can be registered as the legal child, giving that child new rights to schooling.

China's one-child

policy was launched in the late 1970s to control China's exploding population and ensure better education and health care.

- AP