China pauses in act of remembrance for earthquake victims

At 2.28pm local time yesterday, the blare of car horns and the drone of air-raid sirens became a wail of grief as China staged a three-minute remembrance for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake.

China is a bustling, busy place, and it is not easy to get people to down tools and pause to remember. But the tragedy, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives, has united a nation in mourning and the remembrance was marked by most of China's 1.3 billion people.

Sichuan's plight has touched everyone's hearts. Everyone in China knows someone from the heavily populated province that is the country's grain basket and home to many of the migrant workers who have helped to transform China's urban landscape.

"I feel sorrow and disappointment when I see the suffering the people of Sichuan have to endure. I gave money, and I think the government and rescue teams have done very well," said a businessman from north-eastern China, who had come to Chengdu to find his missing friends.

The official death toll has risen to more than 34,000, with nearly five million homeless, while the number of dead, missing or buried has soared to 71,000.

In Beijing, the country's leadership, led by President Hu Jintao, wore white flowers on their chests – white is the traditional colour of mourning – and bowed their heads in silence. Earlier, about 1,000 people marched waving flags in Tiananmen Square, singing the national anthem and chanting "Come on!" and "Let's Rebuild Sichuan".

In Dujiangyan, where hundreds of schoolchildren died, their relatives held candles and burnt incense to mark the beginning of the mourning period. In Beichuan, which was destroyed by the quake, hundreds of rescuers bowed their heads and laid wreaths made from twigs and scraps of paper pulled from the debris. An aftershock rattled the area during the ceremony.

Rescuing the few remaining living and unearthing the dead has been made difficult by bad weather and hundreds of aftershocks. The Transport Ministry said 200 rescue workers had been buried by landslides in the past two days.

A government warning last night of a major aftershock sent thousands of panicked survivors running into the streets. In shattered Sichuan province, residents carried pillows, blankets and chairs from homes into the open or slept in cars after a statement from the National Seismology Bureau was read on television.

The Foreign Ministry appealed to the international community for tents. The focus of relief efforts has turned to helping those left homeless. Many of the bodies now emerging are so badly decomposed that there are fears of outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria.

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