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Rescuers struggle to reach China quake zone as toll climbs

By Michael Martina and Maxim Duncan

LUSHAN, China (Reuters) - Rescuers struggled to reach a remote, rural corner of southwestern China on Sunday as the toll of the dead and missing from the country's worst earthquake in three years climbed to 208 with almost 1,000 serious injuries.

The 6.6 magnitude quake struck in Lushan county, near the city of Ya'an in the southwestern province of Sichuan, close to where a devastating 7.9 quake hit in May 2008, killing 70,000.

Most of the deaths were concentrated in Lushan, a short drive up the valley from Ya'an, but rescuers' progress was hampered by the narrowness of the road and landslides, as well as government controls restricting access to avoid traffic jams.

"The Lushan county center is getting back to normal, but the need is still considerable in terms of shelter and materials," said Kevin Xia of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

"Supplies have had difficulty getting into the region because of the traffic jams. Most of our supplies are still on the way."

In Ya'an, relief workers from across China expressed frustration with gaining access to Lushan and the villages beyond, up in the mountains.

"We're in a hurry. There are people that need help and we have supplies in the back (of the car)," said one man from the Shandong Province Earthquake Emergency Response Team, who declined to give his name.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs put the number of dead at 184 and missing at 24, with more than 11,800 injured.

Hundreds of armed police were blocked from using roads that were wrecked by landslides and marched in single file with shovels en route to Baoxing, one of the hardest hit areas. Xinhua news agency said 18,000 troops were in the area.

The Foreign Ministry thanked foreign governments for offers of help, but said the country was able to cope.

In Lushan, doctors and nurses tended to people in the open or under tents in the grounds of the main hospital, surrounded by shattered glass, plaster and concrete. Water and electricity were cut off by the quake, but the spring weather is warm.

"I was scared. I've never seen an earthquake this big before," said farmer Chen Tianxiong, 37, lying on a stretcher between tents, his family looking on.

In another tent, Zhou Lin sat tending to his wife and three-day-old son who were evacuated from a Lushan hospital soon after the quake struck on Saturday.

"I was worried the child or his mother would be hurt. The buildings were all shaking. I was extremely scared. But now I don't feel afraid any more," said Zhou, looking at his child who was wrapped in a blanket on a makeshift bed.

Premier Li Keqiang flew into the disaster zone by helicopter to comfort the injured and displaced, chatting to rescuers and clambering over rubble.

"Treat and heal your wounds with peace of mind," Xinhua quoted Li as telling patients at a hospital. "The government will take care of all the costs for those severely wounded."

Chen Yong, the vice director of the Ya'an city government earthquake response office, told reporters on Saturday that the death toll was unlikely to rise dramatically.

Already poor, many of the earthquake victims said the government was their only hope.

Cao Bangying, 36, whose family had set up mattresses and makeshift cots under a dump truck, said her house had been destroyed.

"Being without a home while having a child of this age is difficult," Cao said, cradling her nine-month-old baby. "We can only rely on the government to help us."

No schools had collapsed, unlike in 2008 when many poorly constructed schools crumpled causing huge public anger, prompting a nationwide campaign of re-building.

Ya'an is a city of 1.5 million people and is considered one of the birthplaces of Chinese tea culture. It is also the home to one of China's main centers for protecting the giant panda.

(Writing by Ben Blanchard, Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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