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Landslides death toll mounts to more than 300


Latest update : 2010-08-09

Mudslides in northwest China have killed at least 337 by the latest count on Monday, as rescuers dug desperately for the 1,000 others still missing. In the northeast, widespread flooding has displaced millions.

AFP - The death toll from mudslides in northwest China surged to 337 on Monday, as rescuers used diggers and their bare hands in a desperate search for more than 1,000 others still missing.

At least three villages were flattened by an avalanche of mud and rocks triggered by heavy rains in a remote area of Gansu province late Saturday -- the latest deadly disaster as China battles its worst flooding in a decade.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who visited the devastated area Sunday and Monday, urged rescue workers to do everything possible to find survivors and get aid to tens of thousands of people without food or drinking water.

"For those buried under the debris, now it's the most crucial time to save their lives," Wen was quoted by the official Xinhua news agency as saying Sunday. State television on Monday ran images of him comforting survivors.

The death toll jumped to 337 late Monday from an earlier figure of 137, Xinhua said, quoting Chen Jianhua, communist party chief of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous prefecture. Another 1,148 others were missing.

Early Monday, 34 hours after the landslides, rescuers saved a 74-year-old woman in hardest-hit Zhouqu county, where streets were covered in mud two metres (six feet) thick in places and more than 300 homes were destroyed.

The woman was in stable condition and able to speak, Xinhua said. State television showed her being carried away on a stretcher.

The landslides swept mud, houses, cars and other debris into a river running through Zhouqu, blocking the waterway and triggering flooding in the mountainous area, the government said.

The mudslides levelled an area five kilometres (three miles) long and 500 metres wide, Xinhua said, with floodwaters up to three storeys high submerging half the county. Roads and bridges were destroyed.

In the centre of the county seat, the pungent odour of corpses permeated the air. Bodies were scattered along the sides of the main road, which was covered in knee-deep soft mud. Residents wandered about, searching for their relatives.

"Eighteen people from our village have gone missing," a woman who only gave her name as Zhao told AFP. Her neighbour, 26-year-old Jin Xuecai, lost his wife, mother and two children.

Only the body of his three-year-old daughter had been found. In accordance with Tibetan tradition, Jin cremated the girl's remains at the side of the road, staring in silent shock and disbelief at the flames.

Near the Bailong river, three men burned paper, a ritual carried out in honour of the dead, on an arch above a partly flooded road.

He Xinchao, a 44-year-old man who was rescued with his three-year-old son on Sunday, told the China Daily newspaper that he had clung to a pole overnight to survive.

"That night, I went to the door to check what had happened after I heard a strong wind and unusual rumbling," he said.

"As soon as I opened the door, mud squeezed in... For the entire night, water and mud kept rising, covering my chest and edging up to my neck."

Nine members of his family were still missing and feared dead, he said.

Authorities have sent more than 4,500 soldiers, police, firefighters and medics to help in search and rescue efforts.

"We have heard signs of life, cellphones ringing and faint cries for help," Xu Jiaming, who was commanding a group of 500 soldiers, told Xinhua.

Residents and rescuers in Zhouqu used odds and ends to build makeshift stretchers to remove dead bodies. Not far from town, about a dozen corpses had been lined up in a parking lot, awaiting identification.

A total of 117 people have been injured, Xinhua said. Four were in critical condition in hospital and 20 others were airlifted to the provincial capital Lanzhou for treatment. Psychologists have been sent to help survivors cope.

More rain was forecast from Wednesday.

Authorities have sent generators, tents, instant noodles and bottled water to the region, about one third of whose residents are ethnic Tibetans, but many were still badly in need.

The devastated region was among the worst hit by an earthquake in neighbouring Sichuan province in 2008 -- a fact which some geologists said could have helped trigger the landslides.

The government had said more than 2,100 people were dead or missing nationwide in flood-related disasters before the Gansu mudslides. More than 12 million others have been evacuated from their homes.

In China's northeast, entire towns have been flooded and rivers bordering North Korea swollen to critical levels. State media in that country have reported widespread flooding, without giving casualty figures.

Date created : 2010-08-09


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