Soldiers race to blast clear China 'quake lake'
Tuesday, 27 May 2008

AFP, MIANZHU - Soldiers raced Monday to blast clear a river dammed by landslides after China's deadly earthquake two weeks ago, amid fears that more than one million people could be at risk from flooding.

The operation to reduce the so-called "quake lake" in mountainous Sichuan province came as the confirmed death toll from the huge tremor passed 65,000, with more than 23,000 others still missing.

China has had to cope with thousands of aftershocks and a myriad of other dangers while trying to provide food, shelter and medical help to the millions of people left homeless across an area of rugged land the size of South Korea.

One of the top concerns on Monday was the build-up of a massive amount of water on the Jian river in devastated Beichuan county, with authorities warning of major flooding if it bursts.

More than 100,000 people had already been evacuated downstream over the past week, and if the lake bursts uncontrollably, more than 1.2 million others would be at risk, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

State television showed a team of 1,800 Chinese soldiers and police arriving early Monday at the river after a long hike through remote, mountainous terrain.

The soldiers had orders to blast away some of the landslide rubble with dynamite.

Fifteen pieces of heavy equipment, including bulldozers and loading trucks, had been transported to the site by helicopter, Xinhua said on Monday evening. There were no further details on the progress of the work, although media reports suggested that the focus had moved away from blasting away the rubble to digging it out.

The swelling body of water is one of about 35 "quake lakes" that could cause huge problems if they burst, Vice Minister of Water Resources E Jingping said Sunday.

He stressed there was no imminent danger from the "quake lakes" but warned that expected heavy rains over the next few days would heighten flood risks.

E also said the quake had left 69 dams in danger of bursting and created "dangerous situations" at hundreds of others.

But he said steps had been taken to alleviate the danger, including draining or lowering water levels at hundreds of reservoirs.

The area was hit with its biggest aftershock yet on Sunday, underlining the lingering danger faced by the people of Sichuan as they try to recover from the May 12 quake, which measured 8.0 on the Richter scale.

Sunday's aftershock, measuring 6.4, shook Sichuan province, killing eight people, injuring hundreds of others, and toppling tens of thousands of houses.

"Houses started to shake and everybody went out into the street," Lou Taiyi, a resident of Chengdu, Sichuan's capital, told AFP.

"We were thinking (May 12) was behind us but it is continuing."

The aftershock had an impact on China's stock market, which slumped 3.13 percent on Monday, as the tremor added to concerns that the economic impact of the disaster might be greater than originally forecast.

The government said last week that just over 5.4 million people lost their homes in the earthquake.

But cabinet spokesman Guo Weimin said Monday that 14.38 million had been "transferred to temporary shelters," although he did not specify whether those people had been left homeless or were evacuated.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers, relief workers and volunteers pressed on with the enormous task of helping the traumatised survivors .

Many now live in tents or hastily erected pre-fabricated houses in temporary camps scattered across the quake zone.

But an untold number are still living without shelter, with the government warning last week that it was in desperate need of millions of tents and that reconstruction work would take at least three years.

Premier Wen Jiabao thanked the international community for its help on a weekend visit to the devastated town of Yingxiu, the epicentre of the quake, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

In a rare bright spot, a giant panda that had gone missing from the world-renowned Wolong Panda Reserve since the quake wrecked the breeding centre was recaptured Monday, state media said.

Xixi, one of two pandas from the reserve still at large, was apparently in good health. Several of the reserve's pandas, among the world's most endangered species, have been taken to another reserve amid food shortages.

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