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Hundreds of people were killed or injured when a strong earthquake struck China's southwestern Sichuan province Saturday, local officials said, five years after a massive quake devastated the region.
The shallow earthquake struck close to the city of Ya'an on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau just after 8:00 am (0000 GMT), setting off landslides, destroying buildings and triggering a major rescue operation.
Four hours after the quake struck, 72 people had been confirmed dead and 600 injured, CCTV News reported.
The quake sent panicked residents in cities hundreds of kilometres away fleeing into the streets, some of them still in their slippers and pyjamas.
Local seismologists registered the quake at magnitude 7.0 while the US Geological Survey gave it as 6.6 at a depth of 12 kilometres (seven miles). It was followed by several aftershocks.
"The earthquake in Ya'an, Lushan, has injured or killed hundreds of people," the Sichuan earthquake bureau said, according to an official government website.
The provincial government, which was heavily criticised after Sichuan's 2008 quake left 87,000 people missing or dead, swiftly mobilised and President Xi Jinping ordered every effort to be made to minimise casualties, Xinhua said.
Rescue workers heading for the quake zone were struggling to clear roads that had been blocked by debris, CCTV reported.
"There are mountains on all sides, it is very easy to trigger mudslides and very dangerous," one user wrote on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter.
A Sina Weibo user posted a photo purportedly showing a badly damaged kindergarten in Lushan, its dark red stone slabs lying on the ground beside a row of trees. The authenticity of the photo could not be verified.
"Hang in there Ya'an!" the user wrote.
The tremors were felt as far as the megacity of Chongqing, home to around 30 million people, several hundred kilometres to the east, with Xinhua showing images of residents outside their apartment buildings after feeling the shaking.
Xinhua news agency said 2,000 troops were being dispatched to the area, with two helicopters from the Chengdu Military Area Command sent to assess developments on the ground.
The military set up a quake relief and rescue headquarters and medical relief team for the quake-hit region.
Xinhua quoted a resident in the provincial capital Chengdu, who was on the 13th floor when the quake hit, as saying he felt the shaking for about 20 seconds and saw tiles fall off nearby buildings.
City residents ran onto the street to get away from high rises, making phone calls and crying, a Sichuan government website reported.
A few had even packed bags in case they needed to take shelter elsewhere.
In a photo published online by Xinhua, staff at a restaurant in Shifang city near the provincial capital Chengdu showed cracks that appeared in the wall after the quake struck.
In downtown Chongqing, Xinhua quoted a resident as saying: "I saw the lamps were swaying and water in my fishbowl stirring."
Weibo users said they felt the quake in a number of surrounding cities.
In 2008 the province saw one of the country's worst earthquakes in decades.
That quake, which struck west-northwest of Chengdu, generated an outpouring of support, with volunteers rushing to the scene to offer aid and then-premier Wen Jiabao also visiting.
The disaster flattened swathes of the province along with parts of neighbouring Shaanxi and Gansu.
But there was public anger after the discovery that many schools fell while other buildings did not, creating suspicion of corruption and corner-cutting in construction.
The deaths of the children became a sensitive and taboo subject in the heavily controlled domestic media and social media websites.
Earthquakes frequently strike the country's southwest, with twin tremors in neighbouring Yunnan province last September triggering landslides that left at least 80 people dead.
Houses were toppled and people slept outdoors for fear of aftershocks, as emergency workers struggled to clear mountain roads blocked by the landslides to reach survivors.
A 5.5-magnitude earthquake in Yunnan last June killed four people and injured more than 100. Another 5.4 tremor the year before near the border with Myanmar left 25 people dead and injured 250.