06/13/2005, 00.00
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200 pupils dead in flooding, parents claim

Government's death toll set at 88. Thousands of villagers join a protest, asking journalists to report the "whole truth" to the entire world.

Ningan (AsiaNews/Scmp) - Hundreds of enraged parents whose children were killed in a flash flood in Heilongjiang province blocked the main roads of Ningan city yesterday, demanding a full investigation into the tragedy, which killed at least 200 pupils.

They challenged the government's claim that only 88 students have died so far in the violent flash flood that sent a wall of water and debris smashing into Shalan Township Central Elementary School on Friday. Four villagers were also killed. Seventeen students are still missing, according to Xinhua.

Officials said the rainfall preceding the flood - 150mm to 200mm fell in 40 minutes on Friday - happened only once every 200 years and was difficult to prepare for.

The villagers set the death toll at about 200, and held authorities responsible for the disaster. They said officials had failed to respond to their early appeals for help. "Give us the truth [of what actually happened in the accident]. Punish those officials responsible for the disaster," shouted emotional parents and relatives. They staged sit-ins over the weekend, blocking major roads leading to Ningan.

"It is appalling how they have tried to cover up so far," said one villager, whose nine-year-old son was lost in the flood.

"When I came here [on Saturday morning] with more than 100 fellow villagers, 96 refrigerators at the city's funeral home each contained the bodies of two youngsters. And more bodies have arrived at the funeral house today," he said. "Why didn't the rescuers arrive earlier?"

He questioned the efficiency of the rescue operation, which involved several thousand people. "By the time they arrived in boats with rescue equipment, we had already found our children's bodies - suffocated by mud and water - after struggling to reach the school, which was under nearly two metres of water," he said.

Xinhua said last night that the county party secretary and police chief were under investigation because of the accusations. Police have sealed off the township and several major roads near the towns to ensure the safety of State Councillor Chen Zhili , who was visiting the township yesterday, accompanied by other senior provincial and city officials. Xinhua said Ms Chen had conveyed condolences to the villagers from President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao .

A total of 352 students, aged six to 14, and 31 teachers were at the school, which lies in a basin, when the flood struck, Xinhua said.

Zhang Zuoru, 62, who lost his nine-year-old grandson in the disaster. "My grandson would not have died so young if they [officials and teachers] had tried their best," he cried. According to Mr Zhang, his grandson, a second-grader, was locked by his teacher in the classroom along with at least 40 classmates.

"No teacher has died so far. Why? Why did they manage to escape, while most of their students were killed? They were even able to save the lives of their own children before they locked the doors."

Mr Zhang said the tragedy might have been avoided if the authorities had been on alert. "The chief of a village which is 4km away from us and near the upper reaches of the Shalan river evacuated his villagers, including students. He had made phone calls immediately to our township government trying to warn us to take precautions, but he could not find any officials. The torrents struck our town 20 minutes after he called," he recalled.

He said an old reservoir some 10km from Shalan could be the cause of the flash floods. "The reservoir was built in the 1960s and since then no major maintenance work has been carried out. I had said so many times to our township officials that it was like a time bomb."

Thousands of Ningan citizens showed up to the protest to express their sympathy.

The villagers approached reporters from Hong Kong asking them to "report the whole truth to the outside world". "Please let the people know of what has happened to our children! Please tell them we were wrongly treated," they cried.

The disaster is the latest in a series of recent tragedies caused by heavy rains on the mainland. State media reported that at least 255 people were killed in floods and storms in May, at the start of the country's rainy season.
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