Wed, May 07, 2003 - Page 5 News List

China's top leaders give a rare display of grief on camera

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BEIJING

Jiang Zemin, left, chairman of China's Central Military Commission, shakes hands with an unidentified man on behalf of relatives of the dead submarine crew in Dalian, in China's Liaoning Province, on Monday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

In another arresting step toward official candor, the television news on Monday night showed the country's two top leaders comforting several relatives of the 70 men who died in a mysterious submarine accident.

Jiang Zemin (江澤民) , the former Communist Party chief who retains the post of military chairman, and President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), the party head and deputy chairman of the military, were also shown touring the hauntingly intact submarine.

The vessel had been towed to its home port near Dalian after the accident in the Yellow Sea.

Both in their meeting with relatives Monday morning and their visit to the ship -- said to have occurred two days ago -- the leaders wore unadorned green military uniforms, reflecting their positions at the head of the Central Military Commission.

The television cameras dwelt at length on each of the leaders, together and in turn, suggesting an intentional effort to defuse speculation that the two are jostling for advantage.

The catastrophe aboard Submarine 361 was first announced Friday night. That it was disclosed at all surprised many defense experts here and abroad because military accidents in the past have been kept secret. But when and how the crew members died, and how the vessel was so easily salvaged, have not been disclosed.

One naval officer who spoke with a foreign reporter said the accident occurred on April 16, when the ship's diesel engines failed to shut down during descent and sucked all the oxygen out of the cabins, suffocating the crew.

But that account has not been confirmed and official reports have blamed an unspecified mechanical failure for the disaster.

A television news broadcast and a report by the New China News agency Monday night said that Jiang and Hu met several relatives of the lost sailors in Dalian. Several other military leaders and local political chiefs were also present.

In the television report, Jiang and Hu both looked somber and genuinely moved as they shook hands and traded words with several grieving family members.

Jiang was reported as saying, "After I learned of the terrible loss of the 361 and the 70 officers and sailors, I felt extremely grieved and couldn't sleep throughout the night."

Hu spoke after Jiang, according to the reports, expressing his own grief and praising the spirit of the lost crew.

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