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Friday, May 30, 2008

Chinese official says no mass evacuation yet ordered in Sichuan province

William Foreman, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHENGDU, China - More than one million people may have to evacuate dozens of villages in a valley in Sichuan province if an earthquake-spawned lake threatens to burst its banks and flood the region, an emergency official warned Friday.

But the official at the Mianyang City Quake Control and Relief Headquarters described as erroneous a report by the official Xinhua news agency that a mass evacuation of more than one million people had already been ordered.

The official, who gave only her surname of Chen, said authorities were preparing to run a drill starting Saturday to ensure 1.3 million people in the Mianyang region can get out quickly if needed.

"Not all 1.3 million people will be actually evacuated," Chen told The Associated Press. "People will only be evacuated in case of the actual collapse of the whole bank."

Chinese troops were still working to drain Tangjiashan lake, which formed above Beichuan town after a quake-triggered landslide blocked a river. There was no sign that the dam formed by the landslide in the May 12 quake was about to burst on Friday, though officials say it could do so in coming days.

Chen said 197,500 people in the valley were being moved to higher ground - about 30,000 more than previously announced.

On Saturday, officials will start a three-day drill that will test government communications systems to ensure that any evacuation order - if it comes - quickly filters down to residents in the valley.

Soldiers were using 40 heavy earth-moving machines to dig drainage channels. Officials quoted in state media have not said how long the work would take.

The confirmed death toll from China's worst quake in three decades was 68,858, the government announced Friday, an increase of about 350 from a day earlier. Another 18,618 people were still missing.

In the chaos after the magnitude 7.9 earthquake, which made five million homeless, many survivors were separated from their families.

Thousands of children and parents who had been separated have been reunited, officials said Friday, while the government has been inundated with requests from families to adopt other children orphaned by the disaster.

Social workers have helped bring together more than 7,000 children and their families since the earthquake struck Sichuan province May 12, said Ye Lu, director of social welfare at the provincial Civil Affairs Department.

"A little more than 1,000 children remain unclaimed or orphaned," Ye said.

The government has been overwhelmed with calls seeking to adopt those children, Ye said.

"We are still getting thousands of calls per week asking about how to adopt, but we are still hoping to find the parents of these 1,000 kids," he said.

Millions are living in tent camps or prefabricated housing being erected by troops, which were taking on the tone of new villages.

In Mianzhu, hospitals, schools and even a makeshift shopping mall had emerged in a tent camp, with stores selling shampoo, shoes, beer and clothes.

A mobile medical centre on the back of a tractor-trailer rig was providing free eye exams. About 50 people - mostly senior citizens and children - lined up for the checkups.

"I've never had my eyes checked before. Even before the quake. This is the first time," said Yu Xiaoling, a 54-year-old farmer who lost her home in the quake.

But some residents were longing for the comforts of home.

"Life is really good here, but we don't have a TV. The things I miss most, though, are my stuffed animals. I lost them when our home collapsed," said Fang Ming, a 10-year-old girl standing outside her tent peeling an orange with the sharp edge of a chopstick.

Also on Friday, government officials in Tokyo said Japan would not use military planes to deliver relief goods to China after Beijing voiced uneasiness over the idea.

China had been in talks with Tokyo about using Japanese military planes to deliver aid, which could have become the first significant military dispatch between the two countries since the Second World War.

But Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said Tokyo would not insist on using the military.

Japan invaded China and conquered large parts of it in the 1930s before being defeated by the Allies in 1945. Many Chinese still strongly resent Japan for its military aggression.

© The Canadian Press, 2008

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