- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2008

CHENGDU, China (AP) — A powerful aftershock destroyed tens of thousands of homes in central China yesterday, killing two people and straining recovery efforts from the country’s worst earthquake in three decades. More than 480 people were injured.

Meanwhile, soldiers rushed with explosives to unblock a debris-clogged river threatening to flood homeless quake survivors.

The fresh devastation came after a magnitude 6.0 aftershock — among the most powerful recorded since the initial May 12 quake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The China National Seismic Network said the aftershock was the strongest of dozens in the nearly two weeks since the disaster.

The new tremor killed two people and injured more than 480, 41 seriously, the official Xinhua news agency said. About 71,000 homes that had survived the original quake were leveled and 200,000 were in danger of collapse from the aftershock that caused office towers to sway in Beijing, 800 miles away.

Before the aftershock, the Cabinet said the confirmed death toll had risen to 62,664, with 23,775 people missing. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has warned that the number of dead could surpass 80,000.

A mudslide caused by the aftershock blocked a road, but Xinhua said no serious landslides were reported.

Previous landslides loosened by the quake jammed rivers, creating 35 new lakes that placed 700,000 survivors in jeopardy of floods, Vice Minister of Water Resources E Jingping told reporters in Beijing.

The biggest concern was the new Tangjiashan lake in Beichuan county, where some 1,600 police and soldiers were hiking with 22 pounds of explosives each to blast through debris, according to Xinhua.

The Ministry of Water Resources said 69 dams in Sichuan were in danger of collapse from quake damage, but reservoirs have been drained to lessen the risk. Authorities have said the world’s largest water project — the Three Gorges dam, about 350 miles east of the quake’s epicenter — was not damaged.

Meanwhile, one of two pandas missing since the quake from a preserve for the endangered animals in Wolong, near the epicenter, was sighted yesterday, Xinhua said. The panda, named Xixi, disappeared before staff could reach it, but it was thought to be safe. The search was to continue today.

Eight pandas from the reserve are spending the next six months at the Beijing Zoo on a special Olympics visit that was planned long before the quake. The animals were flown Saturday afternoon by special plane to Beijing.