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Rescuers search for victims in the debris of a hospital after a 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit Dujiangyan, in southwest China's Sichuan province, on Monday. ((Color China Photo/Associated Press))

More than 10,000 people died when a 7.9 -magnitude earthquake struck southwestern China on Monday, trapping adults and children under the rubble of collapsed schools and office buildings, and causing ammonia spills at a chemical plant, the state news agency said.

Xinhua, citing government officials, said almost all of the deaths were in Sichuan province, where another 10,000 could be injured. In one of the worst-hit areas of Sichuan — Beichuan county — an estimated 80 per cent of buildings were reduced to rubble.

The earthquake, felt as far away as Pakistan, Thailand and Vietnam, struck about 100 kilometres northwest of the capital of Sichuan, Chengdu, the U.S. Geological Survey said on its website. It hit at 2:28 p.m. local time, when schools were full and office buildings were packed.

More than 200 people died in three other provinces, including Gansu and Yunnan, and in the municipality of Chongqing. No Canadian casualties or injuries have been reported, a Foreign Affairs spokesman said Monday, adding that the Canadian Embassy in Beijing is monitoring the situation and providing assistance to Canadians in the area.

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Rescuers try to save injured students Monday at Juyuan Middle School in Juyuan Township, about 100 kilometres from the epicentre of the earthquake. ((Chen Xie/Xinhua/Associated Press))

Xinhua said about 900 students were trapped inside a high school in Juyuan township, and students could be seen trying to climb out from under the rubble of the three-storey building, while others were heard calling for help.

At least 50 people were confirmed dead at the site of the collapse, according to the news agency. Families waited in the rain near the rubble as rescuers wrote the names of the dead on a blackboard, Xinhua said.

Several other schools reportedly collapsed as well, the news agency said, including five in the Sichuan city of Deyang.

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At least one person was killed when a water tower toppled near the epicentre of the earthquake, Xinhua said, while hundreds of people were buried by rubble when a chemical plant collapsed in the Shifang area of Sichuan. It's feared that 70 tonnes of liquid ammonia leaked from the plant.

Xinhua said as many at least 600 died in Shifang city, while 2,300 people in the city were still buried under rubble. The report did not say whether people died from the quake or the chemical leak.

A hospital collapsed in Dujiangyan city, in Sichuan, Xinhua said.

Relief efforts may be hampered

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Chengdu to oversee the relief efforts, and President Hu Jintao ordered an "all-out" rescue effort, Xinhua reported.

"Hang on a bit longer. The troops are rescuing you," Wen shouted to people buried in Dujiangyan city's Traditional Medicine Hospital, in a televised broadcast.

The government and its media quickly mobilized, with nearly 20,000 soldiers, reservists and police sent to the area. But their efforts were being slowed by blocked routes and nightfall.

Francis Markus, spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Beijing, told CBC News that communications with the area have been cut off because telephone lines were damaged and roads destroyed.

"We have very little information and almost no communication with the areas around the epicentre, so just assessing the extent of damage and casualties is going to be a major operation," he said.

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Students help a classmate to safety in Qionglai after an earthquake struck central China. ((Associated Press))

He said the Beijing-based Red Cross Society of China is gathering quilts, tents, food and other items to send to the affected areas, but it's "impossible to get transport to the areas. This is going to be a massive relief effort once it gets going."

Peter Ford, a writer for the Christian Science Monitor in Beijing, said relief efforts by the Chinese government were swift. The government has improved its disaster response system in the past year or so because the country is battered regularly by typhoons and other natural disasters, he said.

Zaixin Ma, president of Dawa Business Group in Vancouver, told CBC News that his siblings and 90-year-old mother living in the Chengdu area were unhurt. But his brother and mother, like many other nervous residents, are staying in cars or outside overnight instead of in their homes because of fears of more quakes. Ma said several Chinese organizations in Vancouver have agreed to make donations to the people affected by the quake.

In Beijing, more than 1,500 kilometres from the epicentre, thousands of people fled office towers, which swayed for more than two minutes after the quake struck. Among the buildings affected were those housing the media offices for the Beijing Olympics, which will be held in three months. A Beijing organizing committee spokesman said the Olympic venues were not affected by the quake.

In Taipei, near the southeastern Chinese coast, buildings also shook violently, while in Shanghai, skyscrapers swayed as people rushed to the streets. People also raced out of buildings in Bangkok and Hanoi.

Quake could spark landslides

The Global Disaster Alert and Co-ordination System (GDAC) issued a statement saying the quake could have a "high humanitarian impact" and spark deadly landslides. GDAC, which is run by the United Nations and European Commission, said while the epicentre was in a sparsely populated area, Chengdu is nearby and home to about 10 million people.

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Officials put the death toll at close to 10,000 after a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck China on Monday. ((CBC))

Calls to emergency response numbers in Chengdu rang constantly busy on Monday, as telephone and power networks were down in much of the area, making it difficult to get information about the disaster.

"In Chengdu, mobile telecommunication converters have experienced jams and thousands of servers were out of service," said Sha Yuejia, deputy chief executive officer of China Mobile.

One Israeli student managed to text message the Associated Press from the city, saying there were widespread power outages and water outages.

"Traffic jams, no running water, power outs, everyone sitting in the streets, patients evacuated from hospitals sitting outside and waiting," the student said.

A magnitude-7.5 earthquake is considered a major event, capable of causing widespread damage and injuries in populated areas.

China's deadliest earthquake in modern history struck the northeastern city of Tangshan on July 28, 1976, killing an estimated 240,000 people.

With files from the Associated Press