China began evacuating more than 300,000 people Friday from along the raging Yangtze River, saying it was preparing to flood their land in a desperate effort to save villages downstream.

With the Yangtze at record levels and rising, officials were preparing to open floodgates and, if that failed, blow up a dike to divert floodwaters away from one of the most treacherous sections of the 3,900-mile-long river.In a giant exodus, villagers streamed out of the flood-threatened area. Many carried belongings on their back and took livestock with them as they walked away, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

Local authorities in badly flooded Hubei province declared an around-the-clock curfew over the area, Xinhua said.

More than 2,000 people have died in summer floods that began in June. The death toll continued to rise as new reports come in from flooded areas.

It was unclear when authorities would decide whether to intentionally flood the towns and villages in the Yangtze's Jingjiang section in the central province. Such a decision would require the approval of China's State Council, or Cabinet. Xinhua said the government was "still pondering."

"The worst moment of the year's flood control efforts is probably coming," the newspaper China Daily quoted unidentified Yangtze River officials as saying.

The crisis was precipitated by a surge of floodwaters headed down river toward the Jingjiang dikes Friday. Officials fear the flood tide - the river's fourth this year - could cause sodden levees weakened by weeks of rain and floods to collapse.

Already embankments protecting the city of Jiujiang, down the Yangtze in southeast Jiangxi province, burst open Friday, releasing a torrent that flooded parts of the city, Xinhua said.

Disaster workers sunk three boats to plug the 130-foot-wide breach and attempted to build a second emergency dike, it said.

The last time the Yangtze was this high was in 1954, during floods that forced officials to divert water three times. More than 30,000 people died.