WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 (RFA)�A deadly earthquake in China�s westernmost region, Xinjiang, has severely damaged at least three villages, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports, and local sources say the actual toll is far higher than the government�s figure of 257 dead and more than 2,000 injured.

�One village, Chongquchaq, was completely destroyed,� a Uyghur official in the Maralbeshi (in Chinese, Bachu) County government told RFA�s Uyghur service. �In that village alone, at least 257 people were killed� We are still rescuing others under the rubble.�

The two areas hardest-hit by the quake, which China says measured 6.8 on the open-ended Richter scale, were Maralbeshi and Payzawat (Jiashi) counties. Both areas are overwhelmingly populated by Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Moslem minority group with a long history of tension with the Chinese government. According to official Chinese media, Payzawat (Jiashi) has a population of at least 300,000, while Maralbeshi (Bachu) has a population of 260,000. Both counties are 90 percent Uyghur.

Another Uyghur official at the Kashgar Seismological Bureau, who also declined to be named, said three Maralbeshi County villages were �leveled�: Tot-Ochaq, Seriq-boya, and Alaghir, which are known primarily by their traditional Uyghur names.

�I have just been told that the relatively rich villages of Tot-Ochaq, Seriq-boya, and Alaghir, in Maralbeshi County, were leveled, even though they were very well built,� the official said. �The situation is extremely tragic. Many people couldn�t find jinaza (traditionally, carriages for the dead), so they piled them up, many bodies on top of one another.�

�Not this many people died even in the Ulughchat County earthquake, which measured 7.4 in 1985. That was the worst earthquake since 1949,� he said. �The situation is severe at Chongquchaq, Awat, Yengi-osteng, Seriq-boya, and Alaghir villages. The worst damage was in Chongquchaq village.�

The Maralbeshi County chief, who gave his name as Mardan, said officials would release more detailed information soon. Other authorities contacted by telephone, who spoke on condition that they would not be named, said senior officials had instructed them not to speak with foreign journalists.

The epicenter of the quake was 25 miles (about 55 kms) east of Payzawat (Jiashi), which is about 35 miles (65 kms) east of Kashgar, storied city of the ancient Silk Road. China has suffered numerous earthquakes, including deadly temblors in 1996 and 1997 not far from Jiashi.

RFA broadcasts news and information to Asian listeners who lack regular access to full and balanced reporting in their domestic media. Through its broadcasts and call-in programs, RFA aims to fill a critical gap in the lives of people across Asia. Created by Congress in 1994 and incorporated in 1996, RFA currently broadcasts in Burmese, Cantonese, Khmer, Korean, Lao, Mandarin, the Wu dialect, Vietnamese, Tibetan (Uke, Amdo, and Kham), and Uyghur. It adheres to the highest standards of journalism and aims to exemplify accuracy, balance, and fairness in its editorial content. ###


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