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China: Premier Says Quake Death Toll Could Hit 80,000

China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, says the earthquake death toll has passed 60,000 and could rise to 80,000 or more.

Wen's estimate is a sharp increase from the 55,000 deaths reported earlier by the government.

Wen made the comments while touring Yingxiu, a town at the epicenter of the disaster, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In recent days, Ban has been touring cyclone-hit Burma (Myanmar).

Ban praised the Chinese leadership for its response to the disaster and promised further help with the reconstruction. "The Chinese government, at the early stage of this natural disaster, has invested strenuous effort and demonstrated extraordinary leadership," Ban told journalists in Yingxiu.

The international community has largely praised China for its relief efforts -- in stark contrast to the international criticism of Burma's response to the cyclone that has devastated many parts of the country.

Only on May 23, three weeks after the cyclone hit on May 2, did Burma's leadership agree to let in foreign aid workers to help the estimated 2.5 million people affected by the disaster. Over 130,000 people are feared dead or missing.

'Secondary Disasters'

In China, with little hope of finding survivors alive, the government has said it is focusing on preventing epidemics and "secondary disasters" such landslides or flooding. Following the earthquake, over 30 new "barrier lakes" have formed, where stored-up water poses severe risks of flooding.

There are also fears about potential sources of radiation. China's deputy environment minister, Wu Xiaoqing, said on May 23 that 50 sources of radiation had been buried. He said that 35 sources have been secured, but 15 are still underneath destroyed buildings, although the radiation was not reportedly leaking.

With the earthquake destroying some 15 million homes, the next task for the Chinese government will be resettling and rebuilding. Wen has said the government needs 900,000 tents to house the survivors, and has urged Chinese manufactures to produce 30,000 a day.

Many survivors from disaster-hit regions are being resettled in other provinces.

compiled from agency reports