(CNSNews.com) - Setting aside differences over its longstanding dispute with China, Taiwan has offered to deploy search and rescue personnel to the mainland's southwestern Sichuan province, where China's biggest earthquake in three decades reportedly killed some 10,000 people.
Taiwanese non-governmental charity groups also were offering help, the island's Central News Agency reported.
Offers to send rescue teams were made through the Straits Exchange Foundation, a quasi-official body set up in Taiwan to handle relations with the mainland. The two governments do not have official ties, as Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province.
"Taiwan is willing to cooperate with the international community to participate in disaster relief and reconstruction work," outgoing President Chen Shui-bian said.
President-elect Ma Ying-jeou, who will be inaugurated in a week's time, also voiced concern, saying in a statement that he was willing to help coordinate a relief effort. Ma's nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party also pledged humanitarian aid, in a message sent to China's Communist Party.
It was not immediately clear whether the Chinese government would take up the offers of help. Chinese state-run media briefly recorded the KMT condolence statement, but did not include the Taiwanese government's response with reactions from other governments.
Relations across the Taiwan Strait have long been strained, with Taiwanese goodwill tested frequently over China's successful blocking of its efforts to function as a normal member of the international community (When a deadly earthquake hit central Taiwan in 1999, China's insistence that aid from the Red Cross and Russia be channeled through the mainland delayed its arrival. Taipei said at the time that China had also prevented regional World Health Organization experts from visiting the scene.)
Taiwan has a national team of specialist rescue personnel, falling under the Interior Department's National Fire Administration. It has drawn praise in the past after dispatching teams to help search for survivors of disasters in countries including the Philippines, El Salvador and Iran.
The 72-hour period following an earthquake is considered a window of opportunity during which survivors trapped by rubble can still be saved.
Monday's quake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, was felt in many parts of China, including Beijing almost 1,000 miles away, and in some neighboring Southeast Asian countries as well.
Coming less than three months before China hosts its most high-profile international event ever, the Beijing Olympics, the disaster will be a test of the government's ability to deal quickly and effectively with an unexpected national crisis.
Beijing mounted a huge relief effort, mobilizing troops, aircraft and emergency medical teams, and setting up a disaster relief headquarters under the direction of Premier Wen Jiabao, who flew to a city about 60 miles from the epicenter within hours of the quake.
Early Tuesday morning, Wen ordered the military to do its best to reach the worst-hit area -- access roads in the mountainous region have been cut off by rocks and mudslides -- within hours. By then, almost 17,000 soldiers had been deployed and another 34,000 were "advancing towards the disaster-hit regions by planes, trains, and trucks, and on foot," the Xinhua news agency reported.
State media showed images of Wen using a megaphone to encourage and comfort people trapped in collapsed buildings. Rescuers used cranes, heavy equipment and their hands to lift rubble.
Among those feared dead were hundreds of students in a collapsed middle school building, where more than 60 bodies had already been recovered. Xinhua reported that teenage students trapped beneath the debris were heard crying out for help.
President Bush in a statement of condolence said he was "particularly saddened by the number of students and children affected by this tragedy." The U.S. was ready to help in any way possible, he said.
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