A deadly earthquake gutted schools and houses along China's border with Central Asia Monday, leaving at least 257 dead and thousands injured and homeless, state-controlled media and witnesses said.

Farmhouses and schools collapsed and dormitories crumbled when the temblor, which registered 6.8 on the Richter scale, hit the western part of Xinjiang province, near China's mountainous border with Kyrgyzstan, on Monday morning.

In one village in Bachu County, more than 1,000 buildings and houses collapsed, according to the state-run New China News Agency. Tens of thousands of people were left homeless and were preparing to spend the night outside in the wintry chill, witnesses said.

At least 10 students died when their junior high school collapsed in the county's most badly damaged town, Chongku Qiake, government official Maimai Qiming told the Associated Press. Another county official said a primary school collapsed, killing two students and injuring 20 others.

State-run television said Communist Party chief Hu Jintao, and Wen Jiabao, expected to be China's next premier, ordered food, water and other humanitarian assistance to the region, 1,750 miles west of Beijing.

Several thousand soldiers and military police officers were dispatched to the region. Rescue teams equipped with trained dogs and detection equipment also were reported en route.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was visiting Beijing, spoke at a news conference, expressing "sympathy and condolences to the families of those who have been lost in this tragedy."

The region hit hardest by the earthquake is inhabited by mostly Muslim members of the Uighur ethnic group. The New China News Agency said the quake was the deadliest to strike Xinjiang since the Communists took power in 1949.