China quake parents unbowed in pressing complaints

JUYUAN, China (Reuters) - Anguished Chinese parents said on Wednesday they will press ahead with complaints against officials they blame for schools that toppled in a devastating earthquake, a day after police sought to silence one protest.

The quake centered in southwest China’s Sichuan province killed 69,122 people with 17,991 more missing and likely dead, according to the latest official figures.

Many parents of the 9,000 or more children killed blame flimsy schools and the officials they claim spurned building safety rules.

In Dujiangyan, a small city 50 km (30 miles) from the Sichuan province capital of Chengdu, some parents vowed to keep up their complaints a day after police prevented about 150 of them from trying to lodge a lawsuit over a collapsed middle school.

“The government has said it will address our complaints, but the officials are too corrupt to actually do anything,” said Zhao Deqin, a mother whose 15-year-old twin daughters, Yajia and Yaqi, attended the Juyuan Middle School and died in the collapse.

“We certainly want to sue the school and whoever was responsible,” said Zhang Xianqing, whose 15-year-old boy Zhang Rui also perished in the school, in a town near Dujiangyan.

“Our lawyer didn’t turn up yesterday but we’ll keep on trying until we’re taken seriously.”

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Officials have said 278 children at the school died, but parents say 400 or more may have perished and pointed out that apartments nearby stood upright while the school building fell. With China’s “one-child” population controls, many parents lost their only offspring.

A government spokesman said in Beijing that they sympathized with the parents’ plight, would probe school building safety and extend whatever help they could, but also suggested emotions were running too high.

“We will help them solve their difficulties so that they can receive consolation,” Lu Guangjin told reporters. “This is a very painful thing. Who would not feel fluctuations in emotions? It will take time for them to calm down. Much work needs to be done.”

Sichuan province has set up working teams specifically to address parents’ concerns and dispatched them to some counties where schools collapsed, the provincial government said on Wednesday.

But parents in Xiang’e, another small town near Dujiangyan where almost all the middle school students died, said local authorities were harassing them.

Half a dozen parents who sought answers in a meeting with Dujiangyan officials on Monday were taken into custody by local police on Wednesday, a resident said.

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“We went to seek justice for the children and they said we were troublemakers. The police were in a row and would not let us pass,” said Li Guilong, 20, whose 16-year-old sister Li Zhuan was killed in the collapse of the Xiang’e Middle School.

Relation Li Fuliang, who lost his son Li Wei, 14, said the police had been to his house to warn him off.

“They told me not to go and make trouble. If the government does not give us a clear response I will keep going to seek justice. My child died,” he said.

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In past days, Chinese newspapers and magazines reported on the many schools that fell, citing experts who blamed brittle concrete, thin or non-existent steel reinforcement and improperly positioned pillars.

But the protests by parents have not been reported locally, and efforts by officials to discourage foreign reporters talking to parents underscore the school issue’s sensitivity when the government wants the focus on massive relief efforts for millions of displaced people.

“This is going to be a touchstone issue that brings together questions about how to deal with the quake aftermath -- accountability, the public interest and compensation,” Xu Wu, a former Chinese journalist and now a public relations expert at Arizona State University, said of the schools.

“Normally four to five weeks after a disaster, relatives of victims recover from the initial shock and become more demanding and questioning. I think that will start happening.”

In Beijing, lawyers have held meetings on the rights of quake victims and issued calls for a full inquiry into the schools.

“That it was school rooms that collapsed first in the earthquake is a national disgrace,” rights campaigner Xu Zhiyong told a recent forum, according to a transcript seen by Reuters.

Meanwhile troops and disaster officials continued to battle the threats from the more than 30 unstable “quake lakes” created by quake-caused landslides choking rivers and endangering hundreds of thousands of people downstream.

The National Meteorological Centre forecast rain and intermittent thunder storms in parts of the quake area on Thursday and Friday. ( ).

China still has an urgent need of tents to shelter the millions of quake refugees, the head of the international department at the Ministry of Commerce said on Wednesday.

(Writing by Chris Buckley; Additional reporting by Guo Shipeng and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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