Associated Press
Villagers on Wednesday search for survivors in buildings damaged by a rain-triggered landslide in Shanxi province's Xiangfen county. The slide formed a wall three stories high.

XIANGFEN, China — A landslide that unleashed a three-story wave of mud and iron ore waste at an illegal mining operation in China has killed at least 151 people and authorities fear the death toll could climb by hundreds more, state media said Thursday.

In a matter of minutes, the sludge inundated an entire village of 1,000 people and an outdoor market with hundreds of customers on Monday in Shanxi province's Xiangfen county, the China Daily newspaper reported, citing witnesses.

State media put the official death toll at 151 people.

One of the worst-hit areas was Yunhe, the village where the market was located. Yunhe sits in a valley at the foot of Tashan, the hill where the iron ore mine was operating.

Yunhe's 1,300 residents were mainly farmers of wheat, corn and other crops, but also supplemented their wages by providing transport to the nearby mines, according to a local government Web site's official description of the place.

Most of the customers of the outdoor market were migrant workers from the mine and residents of neighboring villages, with many buying food to prepare for an upcoming mid-autumn festival holiday, state media reported.

All that was left after the mudslide were a handful of two-story buildings on the fringe of the sludge, which spanned an area the size of four football fields.

Authorities will not say how many people are missing, saying an investigation is continuing. But news reports said hundreds may be buried in the mud.

"There's almost no hope of their survival ... they have been buried for three days under two meters (yards) of slush," Wang Jun, head of the State Administration of Work Safety, said in the China Daily report.

Wang said there could be several hundred people buried, according to the report.

But Huang Yi, a spokesman of the administration, told The Associated Press that Wang had not commented on the possible number of people buried.

Adding to difficulties in estimating the number of people missing was that most of the mine workers were migrants from elsewhere in Shanxi, as well as from Chongqing and central Hubei province.

More than 2,000 police, firefighters and villagers were mobilized in the search.

Officers were still visiting various households in the area and interviewing residents for a final tally on the number of people missing or buried, state news broadcaster CCTV said.

The figure could be known by the end of Thursday, according to Wang Qingxian, a Shanxi province spokesman cited in the report.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have ordered "a thorough investigation" into the cause of the accident, the China Daily said.

A preliminary investigation showed the landslide was triggered by heavy rains that brought down a retaining wall at a waste dump operated by an illegal mine, said Wang Dexue, deputy head of the State Administration of Work Safety.

The disaster underscores two major public safety concerns in China: the failure to enforce protective measures in the country's notoriously deadly mines, and the unsound state of many of its bridges, dams and other aging infrastructure.

There are more than 9,000 mine waste dumps throughout China, and more than half of them operate without work safety permits, the CCTV report said.

Associated Press writer Gillian Wong and Associated Press researcher Zhao Liang contributed to this report in Beijing.