LUSHAN, China // Thousands of rescue workers combed through flattened villages in south-western China yesterday in a race to find survivors from a powerful quake as the toll of dead and missing rose past 200.
Rescuers battled their way up mountain paths strewn with wreckage to reach isolated parts of Sichuan province on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
Troops worked through the night, searching villages where houses had been destroyed for survivors and treating those injured in the quake.
The death toll rose to at least 186, the Xinhua state news agency reported.
More than 11,300 people were injured and 21 remain missing, provincial officials said.
China's prime minister, Li Keqiang, rushed to the disaster zone to oversee rescue efforts in his first major public test since taking office in March, before returning to Beijing yesterday, China Radio National reported.
Mr Li said on Saturday that the first 24 hours were "the golden time for saving lives". China's new leaders were responding to a disaster five years after another Sichuan earthquake left more than 90,000 people dead or missing.
The rescue operation was hampered by huge queues of traffic, some stretching back for 20 kilometres, clogging roads into the disaster zone.
"We really want to go in and help people, but instead we are waiting in traffic," one frustrated relief official said in his car, as large numbers of volunteers tried to head to the zone.
Boulders the size of cars littered streets in Lushan county, the epicentre of the earthquake.
"Three people died in that building, and no one wants to live in this area any more because it is too dangerous," a 45-year man said, surrounded by rubble from the quake.
More than 1,300 aftershocks have followed since the quake struck Saturday morning. Chinese seismologists registered the tremor at magnitude-7.0, while the US Geological Survey gave it as 6.6.
Firefighters helped by sniffer dogs have pulled 91 people alive from the rubble, Xinhua reported, citing the public security ministry.
At Lushan People's Hospital, a steady stream of ambulances continued to arrive in the early hours yesterday. Most victims were taken to tents erected on the grounds of the hospital, where doctors treated the injured.
A 68-year-old woman with a broken arm spoke of the terror she experienced when the earthquake struck.
"It was as if the mountain was alive," she said. "Now I have no home to go. So I don't know what I am going to do."
The president, Xi Jinping, ordered all-out efforts to minimise casualties, Xinhua reported.
Quake-prone Japan, which has been mired in tensions with China over a high-seas territorial dispute, offered to provide any assistance that was needed.
"Japan is ready to offer its maximum support," Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, said in a message to Mr Xi and Mr Li, according to Japan's foreign ministry.
In Rome, Pope Francis said his "thoughts go to the numerous people" affected by the disaster.
"We pray for the victims and for those who are having to endure suffering because of this violent earthquake," he said during Sunday prayers in St Peter's Square.
China's foreign ministry thanked the international community for offers of assistance, but said that "foreign rescue teams and medical materials are not required now", because of difficulties reaching the disaster-area.
More than 17,000 Chinese soldiers and police have joined the rescue mission, and five drones were sent to capture aerial images, Xinhua reported. Aircraft carried out rescue and relief work.
A military vehicle carrying 17 troops headed for the quake area plummeted over a cliff on Saturday, killing one soldier and injuring seven others.
The disaster has evoked comparisons to the 2008 Sichuan quake, which occurred just 200 kilometres from Lushan and was one of the worst to strike China in decades.
The 2008 quake generated an outpouring of support but public anger erupted after the discovery that many schools fell while other buildings did not, creating suspicions of corruption and corner-cutting in construction.
The deaths of the children became a taboo subject in the heavily controlled domestic media and social media websites.
But the response on China's Twitter-like "weibo" sites to Saturday's quake has overwhelmingly been one of support, with thousands pledging to donate money and others mourning the victims.
Earthquakes frequently strike China's south-west. In April 2010, a magnitude-6.9 quake killed about 2,700 people and injured 12,000 in a remote area of Qinghai province bordering the north-west of Sichuan.