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China landslide kills 56; hundreds feared trapped

Rescuers used heavy equipment to search for survivors buried under a torrent of sludge, mud and mining waste that plowed into buildings in northern China.

world Updated: Sep 10, 2008 22:08 IST

Rescuers used heavy equipment to search on Wednesday for survivors buried under a torrent of sludge, mud and mining waste that plowed into buildings in northern China, killing at least 56 people, state media reported.

The landslide in Shanxi province on Monday also injured 35 people, five seriously, Xinhua News Agency reported, citing the local rescue headquarters.

A preliminary investigation showed that a dam collapse at a mine in Xiangfen county caused the landslide, a top safety official said in a TV interview.

Xinhua cited local government official Lian Zhendong as saying rescuers had searched through 70 percent of the rubble, though the report also said it was not known how many people were trapped under the mud. The People's Daily newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, said on its Web site that the missing could number in the hundreds.

The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said in a statement that the death toll could exceed 500 people. It did not attribute the figure to anyone. The accident underscores two major public safety concerns in China: the failure to enforce protective measures in the country's notoriously deadly mines, and the unsound state of many of its bridges, dams and other aging infrastructure.

The landslide knocked down a mine warehouse, trapping an unknown number of people inside, Xinhua said. A three-story office building, a market and some houses were also destroyed, the report said. The preliminary investigation showed that the landslide was caused by the collapse of a dam used as a retaining wall to enclose tailings from an iron mine, said Wang Dexue, deputy head of the State Administration of Work Safety.

"It is an illegal company that was using the abandoned dump to get rid of its production waste," Wang said in an interview broadcast on state television.

"The amount stored far exceeded the capacity of the space. In addition, there was a bit of rain and the collapse took place as a result," he said.

The State Council has launched an investigation into the cause of the landslide, the People's Daily newspaper said in a report in its online edition.

Nine people suspected to be responsible for the incident, including the owner of the mine, were placed under "control" by the authorities _ presumably detained, the People's Daily said. Xinhua said several officials, including the local head of the work safety administration, village Party secretary and village chief were sacked for failing to supervise safety. Xinhua said more than 1,500 police, firefighters and villagers were searching through the rubble for survivors.

The scale and cause of the disaster was not immediately clear, and local officials told The Associated Press that there was little information available due to difficulties in reaching relief workers at the site.

"You should wait until the official investigation is concluded," said the office director of the Shanxi Bureau of Work Safety, who refused to give his name, as is common among Chinese officials.

Wang Hui, deputy head of Xiangfen county's news center, told The Associated Press that the site had been sealed off by security forces so he could not confirm the death toll or other details.