BEIJING (Reuters) - Mudslides engulfed a town in northwest China on Sunday, killing at least 127 people and leaving nearly 1,300 residents missing as rescue teams dug out crushed homes and tried to blast away debris clogging a river.
The mass of flood water, mud and rock hit Zhouqu County in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu province, a region dominated by steep and barren hills, after torrential rains late on Saturday, Xinhua news agency said, citing local officials.
Runoff from the downpour built up behind a landslide on the Bailong River, which runs through the main town in Zhouqu.
The clogged river in the narrow valley then spilled over its banks and caused flooding and mudslides that struck the town after midnight, smashed a small hydro station, and left at least 127 dead, according to Xinhua.
More heavy rain is forecast on the river on Tuesday.
“Many single-storey homes have been wiped out and now we’re waiting to see how many people got out,” one resident of Zhouqu, a merchant called Han Jiangping, told Reuters by phone. “We’ve had landslides before, but never anything this bad. People are trying to find their families and waiting for more rescuers.”
The disaster follows flooding in Pakistan which has killed more than 1,600 people and in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Flash floods have also killed at least 132 people in the Himalayan region of Ladakh.
China’s death toll could rise sharply and Premier Wen Jiabao rushed to the scene. There were 1,294 people missing, Xinhua reported late on Sunday, and it was unclear how many of them had fled and survived. That count was lower than an earlier estimate that nearly 2,000 were missing.
One village with 300 homes was “buried,” said official news reports.
“It’s very hard to locate the people washed away by floods. It’s hard to say what their chances of survival are,” He Youxin, a People’s Armed Police officer organizing rescue efforts, told Xinhua. “Since excavators can’t reach the site. We can only use spades and our hands to rescue the buried.”
At one point, the flooding covered about half of the Zhouqu county seat, which has about 40,000 residents. The flood water reached up to three storeys high on some buildings, enveloping them in mud unlikely to yield many survivors.
About 2,800 troops and 100 medical workers rushed to help and 5,000 tents were being sent to the town, Xinhua said.
“Now the sludge has become the biggest problem to rescue operations. It’s too thick to walk or drive through,” said the head of the county, Diemujiangteng, according to Xinhua.
China’s ruling Communist Party has become adept at showing its strength by mobilizing troops, aid and propaganda in the face of natural calamities, such as a massive earthquake in 2008. Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen told officials to “spare no efforts to save lives,” said Xinhua.
HOMES HIT AS FAMILIES SLEPT
More than 1,400 people have been killed this year in floods that have devastated areas of central and southern China, according to the national disaster relief authority.
Pictures from Zhouqu showed mud and water covering town streets, motor vehicles being swept downstream and troops frantically digging through debris to hunt for victims, including a boy pulled from a shattered house. Xinhua said the mud dumped on the streets was up to two meters deep.
“There was thunder and huge rain, and then the landslides started coming down,” said a resident of Zhouqu contacted by Reuters. He gave only his surname, Bai. “That was about midnight, so some people must have been in their homes, asleep and didn’t know what was happening.”
Many residents of Gannan are ethnic Tibetan herders and farmers and the rough terrain may hamper rescue efforts. Zhouqu County has 135,000 residents, about a third of them ethnic Tibetans, according to the county government.
Residents had rescued about 680 people by midday, and the water level in the town was falling, said Xinhua.
Troops prepared explosives to blast away the mud and rocks that have choked up the river and created a backlog of water 3 km (2 miles) long and 100 meters across, Xinhua said.
Wen, a geologist, told officials to develop a plan as soon as possible to unblock the river safely. About 19,000 people living in two town below the blockage were moved away, the reports said.
The Gannan meteorological bureau forecast heavy rains on the Bailong River from Tuesday.
Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Nick Macfie/David Stamp
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