Rescuers in desperate hunt for survivors of China mudslides

WENXIAN, China, Aug 9, 2010 (AFP) - Soldiers and rescuers battled Monday through an avalanche of sludge and debris as they raced to find survivors of mudslides that killed at least 127 people and left 1,300 missing in northwest China.

At least one village was entirely engulfed by a torrent of mud and rocks triggered by heavy rains in a remote area of Gansu province -- the latest deadly disaster in a summer that has seen China's worst flooding in a decade.

Rescuers carry a survivor who was found in debris after a deadly flood-triggered landslide hit Zhouqu, in northwest China's Gansu province on August 8, 2010. AFP

Premier Wen Jiabao, who arrived in the devastated area on Sunday, urged the thousands of rescue workers at the scene to hasten efforts to locate survivors and provide relief to about 45,000 people who have been evacuated.

"For those buried under the debris, now it's the most crucial time to save their lives," Wen was quoted by the state Xinhua news agency as saying late Sunday, saying efforts would continue as long as hope of survival existed.

Authorities have sent more than 4,500 soldiers, police, firefighters and medics to help in search and rescue efforts after the landslides in the ethnically Tibetan region, triggered by a deluge of rain late Saturday.

The task in hardest-hit Zhouqu county would not be an easy one. Streets were covered with mud as thick as two metres (yards) in some spots. Cars and homes were buried in the onslaught of debris. Roads and bridges were destroyed.

"Many people were trapped. Now sludge has become the biggest problem for rescue operations. It's too thick to walk or drive through," said county head Diemujiangteng.

The landslides swept mud, houses, cars and other debris into a river running through Zhouqu, blocking the waterway and triggering flooding in the valley, the government said. At one point, half the county was submerged.

Wen inspected the devastation in the worst-hit Sanyan valley, where a village of at least 300 houses was submerged by the mudslide, and many residents were still without power, clean drinking water or phone lines.

The mudslides levelled an area five kilometres (three miles) long and 500 metres wide, Xinhua said, with floodwaters reaching as high as three storeys at one point.

"That night, I went to the door to check what had happened after I heard a strong wind and unusual rumbling," He Xinchao, a 44-year-old man who was rescued with his three-year-old son on Sunday, told the China Daily.

"As soon as I opened the door, mud squeezed in," said He, who clung to a pole overnight to survive. "For the entire night, water and mud kept rising, covering my chest and edging up to my neck."

Nine members of He's family were still missing, he said.

Soldiers and rescuers have been forced to use shovels and even their bare hands to clear the mud, as no heavy equipment was in place in Gannan prefecture, and would have been useless anyway given the thickness of the mud.

Some people awaited rescue on their rooftops. Others walked through the streets carrying their dead loved ones on wooden boards, covered in bed sheets, the China Daily reported.

A total of 1,294 people were missing as of Sunday night, down from an earlier estimate of 2,000, Xinhua said, quoting the rescue headquarters in Zhouqu. Reports said more than 680 people had been rescued.

"It's very hard to locate the people washed away by floods. It's hard to say what their chances of survival are," said He Youxin, whose rescue team had so far saved 23 people and recovered 15 bodies.

Reports said 88 people had also been injured.

Torrential downpours had stopped, reports said, but the local weather bureau has forecast more rain in the coming days.

Authorities have sent electricity generators, tents, instant noodles and bottled water to the region, about one third of whose residents are ethnic Tibetans.

Troops used explosives on Monday to blast away the mud and debris blocking the Bailong River, Xinhua said.

The region was among the worst hit by the massive earthquake in neighbouring Sichuan province in 2008.

According to government figures issued before the latest disaster, the number of people killed or missing in floods across China this year has risen to more than 2,100.

China's civil affairs ministry said Friday more than 12 million had been evacuated from their homes, with 1.4 million homes destroyed. The floods have caused 275 billion yuan (41 billion dollars) in direct economic losses so far.

In China's northeast, entire towns have been flooded and rivers bordering North Korea swollen to critical levels.

North Korean state media said floods in the impoverished nation had washed away homes, roads, railways and farmland, but gave no casualty figures.

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