Mudslides devastate northwest China

The death toll more than doubled to 702, officials said today, as hopes faded that rescuers would find many of the 1,000 people still missing.

Rescuers remove a body from the debris in the landslide-hit Zhouqu county today.
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The death toll from devastating mudslides in northwest China more than doubled to 702, officials said today, as hopes faded that rescuers would find many of the 1,000 people still missing. At least three villages were levelled by an avalanche of mud and rocks triggered by heavy rains on Saturday in a remote area of Gansu province - the latest deadly disaster as China battles its worst flooding in a decade.

A 52-year-old man was pulled alive from his toppled apartment building today, more than 50 hours after the disaster, and other rescue teams heard "very faint" signs of life in another area, the state news agency Xinhua said. But the director of Gansu's civil affairs department, Tian Baozhong, painted a grim picture, telling reporters that the death toll had more than doubled overnight, but the number of missing had dropped only slightly to 1,042.

With more rain forecast for later in the week, the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao urged rescuers to hurry but acknowledged the task would be an arduous one. "We must fully realise the difficulties for the search and rescue work," Mr Wen was quoted as saying by Xinhua. "You must race against the clock and spare no efforts in saving lives." China's president Hu Jintao presided over a meeting of senior Communist Party leaders today on how to handle the crisis, Xinhua said.

More than 7,000 soldiers and rescuers were hunting around-the-clock for survivors in Zhouqu, the county seat, where homes were torn apart and streets buried in mud as deep as two metres in spots. "My older brother is buried here. He was on the ground floor," Chen Xue, 45, told AFP, pointing at a house submerged in mud. Only the third floor poked through the sludge. Chen said he had travelled a full day from neighbouring Sichuan province to try to find his sibling, who was doing construction work in Zhouqu.

"I will wait here until they bring him out," he said, acknowledging that his brother had likely died in the disaster, as rescue workers used shovels and picks to go through the mess, some with the help of sniffer dogs. The landslides swept mud, houses, cars and other debris into the Bailong river running through Zhouqu, choking off the waterway and triggering flooding in the mountainous area, the government said.

The Bailong remained flooded today, with only the tops of street lamps visible above the water line, an AFP correspondent saw, as Zhouqu residents queued for food and bottled water. The mudslides levelled an area five kilometres long and 500 metres wide, Xinhua said. Floodwaters up to three storeys high have submerged half the county, where one third of the population is Tibetan. Roads and bridges have also been destroyed, and teams worked feverishly to repair the damage so aid supplies could get through to the tens of thousands in need.

Aerial photos published by state media showed Zhouqu essentially split in two by a massive river of mud. In the centre of town, the pungent odour of death was overpowering. Residents wandered about, searching for their relatives. Tibetan women cried and chanted in mourning for the victims. Relatives will be given 8,000 yuan (Dh4,400) for each family member lost, Chen Jianhua, communist party chief of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, said yesterday.

More rain was forecast for the area from tomorrow. China's minister of land and resources, Xu Shaoshi, attributed the disaster to several factors: heavy rains; the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that destabilised the nearby mountains; and sustained drought and soil erosion. 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.