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BEIJING: Twenty-one people were killed after hail, freezing rain and high winds hit runners taking part in a cross-country mountain race in China, state media said Sunday. The extreme weather struck a high-altitude section of the 100-kilometre (62-mile) race held in the scenic Yellow River Stone Forest in northwestern Gansu province Saturday afternoon.

Among the dead were elite Chinese long-distance runners, local media reported.

Official news agency Xinhua confirmed that 21 of the 172 participants had died, citing the local rescue command headquarters. The other 151 are now safe, according to state media.

Baiyin city mayor Zhang Xuchen said that at around midday Saturday a section of the rugged ultramarathon course - between kilometres 20 and 31 - was "suddenly affected by disastrous weather".

"In a short period of time, hailstones and ice rain suddenly fell in the local area, and there were strong winds. The temperature sharply dropped," Zhang said. Shortly after receiving messages for help, marathon organisers dispatched a rescue team.

At around 2 pm, weather conditions worsened and the race was called off, Zhang said. The victims included top domestic marathon runners Liang Jing and Huang Guanjun, local media reported. Liang had won multiple Chinese ultramarathons in recent years. The race, backed by the Baiyin city government and the Chinese Athletic Association, has been held for four successive years.