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Downpours bring more worry for China landslide town

ZHOUQU, China (Reuters) - The risk of fresh downpours threatened more misery on Wednesday for a Chinese town devastated by a landslide and further threatened by an unstable lake behind a barrier of mud.

Authorities warned other regions to also brace for heavy rain.

There is scant hope of finding more survivors in the ruins of the valley town of Zhouqu in northwest Gansu province, where at least 1,117 people died when an avalanche roared down the slopes at the weekend after torrential rain. Another 627 are missing.

The stench of death was thick after days of fierce sun and a steady flow of bodies was carried off to makeshift morgues -- little more than roped-off stretches of dirt covered with lime.

“We have come to make sure the children receive a proper funeral,” said Dorje, a Tibetan with only one name, looking for the bodies of his two nephews.

“We have to find the bodies first,” he said, adding that the family was concerned about the expense of a cremation in an area denuded of trees for firewood.

Authorities have warned that heavy rain expected in Zhouqu and other areas over coming days could bring the risk of more floods and land slips, including in adjacent Sichuan province.

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Some 45,000 people have been evacuated from Zhouqu and officials warned others to leave or stay away.

“We are expecting very heavy rain for later today, please don’t spend too long in town,” said a policeman at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the town, who declined to give his name.

Jiao Yong, a Vice Minister of Water Resources, discounted the threat of new floods from accumulated water in the lake formed after the landslides hit Zhouqu and choked the Bailong River.

He said the lake had already been lowered by blasting and excavation and rescuers were ready to cope with possible floods.

“The risk of a sudden collapse of the barrier lake can be excluded,” Jiao told a news conference in Beijing.

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The search and rescue mission in the town has allowed Beijing to showcase its formidable ability to mobilize against natural disasters, including earthquakes and flooding, which have struck China repeatedly in recent years.

More than 10,000 police, troops and firefighters have been sent to the town to aid with the rescue efforts, Premier Wen Jiabao has visited Zhouqu, and other top leaders have also chipped in.

But some people are angry at the government over policies they felt left the town vulnerable to landslides.

Officials have warned for years that heavy tree-felling and rapid hydro development were making the mountain area around Zhouqu vulnerable to land slips, government reports show.

“This has happened before. The government knew it could happen again and did nothing to prevent it,” said local farmer Yang, who did not want to give his full name.

Shaking with anger, he stood beside a hole in the ground where he had been digging in search of five buried relatives.

Guan Fengjun, an official with China’s Ministry of Land and Resources, told the news conference in Beijing that the landslide was a “natural disaster” caused by the extraordinary torrent of rain and the brittle geology of Zhouqu.

Guan added, however, that experts were looking into the possible role of human activity in damaging the landscape.

Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing; Editing by Ken Wills and Sanjeev Miglani