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China mudslide toll climbs to 702

Last updated on: August 10, 2010 17:15 IST

The death toll from the destructive landslides in a Tibetan-majority region in China's northwest more than doubled to 702 on Tuesday while 1,042 people were still missing, as rescuers scrambled hard to sift through thick layers of mud and rocks in a round-the-clock operation to find possible survivors.

Citing officials, the state-run Xinhua news agency said the toll from the massive rain-triggered mudslides in Zhouqu county in Gansu province since Sunday had climbed to 702 on Tuesday afternoon. Xinhua had earlier said that 337 people had died so far. As relief operations picked up speed to clear the debris, a 52-year-old Tibetan man was pulled alive from the rubble of a toppled apartment building, more than 50 hours after the landslides levelled the county. The man named Liu Ma Shindan was rescued from the ruins of a residential building and doctors said his heart rate and breathing were normal, but he was too weak to speak. A 74-year-old lady was rescued yesterday in similar circumstances.

Rescuers hoped that survivors might still be buried in the debris and kept searching for them over the past 24 hours. However, they retrieved four bodies from the same site. More than 7,000 troops were battling through sludge and rubble in a round-the-clock operation to find survivors as a total of 1,042 people were still missing. At least 30 per cent of the local population is Tibetan. Many people have half-Tibetan, half-Chinese names as a result of marriages between the two ethnic groups. Meanwhile, Minister of Land and Resources Xu Shaoshi said the mudslides could have been caused by the county's loose, weathered terrain aided by the massive earthquake in neighbouring Sichuan province in 2008 that shook the mountains around Zhouqu. He also said that sustained drought and soil erosion in the region since last winter had been accentuated by torrential rains lasting for more than 40 minutes on Saturday night before the mudslides fell.

A total of 218 people had been treated for their wounds and 41 severely injured airlifted to the provincial capital Lanzhou, some 650 kms from Zhouqu. About 45,000 residents had been evacuated as the mudslides destroyed more than 300 homes and damaged another 700. Moreover, 3,000 homes had been flooded.

Families of the deceased will be given a special pension of 8,000 yuan (US $ 1,181) for each death, Chen Jianhua, the ruling Communist Party chief in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, which runs the affairs of Zhouqu, told the media. Torrential rains on Saturday night had triggered an avalanche of sludge and debris to crash down on the county seat of Zhouqu, ripping houses off their foundations and tearing six-story apartment buildings in half. The mud-rock flow levelled an area which was five km long, 300 metres wide and 5 metres deep in the county seat, with more than two million cubic metres of mud and rocks, severely damaging telecommunication lines, power and water supply facilities.

Yueyuan village, which sits at the foot of craggy mountains, was reduced to a mess of yellow slush and debris with not a single structure left standing. "It was not raining very heavily in the county seat Saturday night. We didn't know that torrents were crashing down from the mountains," said He Xinchao, a survivor. "Before I realised what was happening, the house was gone." His 11-member family was reduced to two. "Just me and my son (are left)," he said. Relief materials, including tents, food and water, are pouring into the disaster-hit region, officials said. Local authorities have sent more than 5,400 tents, 230 generators, 31,700 boxes of instant noodles, 18,300 boxes of bottled water and 21,400 cotton-padded quilts for survivors, they said.

K J M Varma in Beijing
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