12 Americans Found Safe Near Panda Preserve

Twelve Americans have been found safe Wednesday near the epicenter of China's worst earthquake in three decades.

The members of the World Wildlife Fund were contacted via satellite phone in a region where communications remain almost completely cut off after Monday's disaster, said Kerry Zobor, a U.S.-based spokeswoman for WWF.

"We're very relieved. We're still very sad about the impact on China," Zobor said by phone, adding that two Chinese WWF volunteers are thought to be missing in the area.

The American team was found near the world's most famous panda preserve, in Wolong in Sichuan province. Its 86 pandas were reported safe Tuesday.

Zobor did not identify the Americans but said their families have been contacted.

She said officials in the U.S. office had not spoken directly with the Americans. Contact was made through China-based WWF officials, she said.

At Tuesday's State Department briefing, spokesman Sean McCormack said there was good reason to believe the tourists were safe.

"The responsible Chinese ministry has said that they are OK and accounted for. We haven’t had any direct contact with them, though," McCormack said, adding that "based on our direct contact or experience with them, I can’t say that they’re OK, but we have heard they are OK."

Another group of 15 British nationals have been reported missing in the area of the panda preserve. The British ambassador to China, William Ehrman, told AP Television on Wednesday the embassy is trying to locate them.

The Wolong base is at least a four-hour drive from the provincial capital, Chengdu, in the best of times on a winding two-lane road. The first people to respond to the quake had to go in by foot, reaching the epicenter area Tuesday afternoon.

The death toll in the earthquake rose to nearly 15,000 Wednesday but was expected to rise.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.