Sat, Aug 19, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Chinese authorities deny fibbing on disaster fatalities

AP , BEIJING

China's government denied concealing disaster fatalities as the official death toll from Typhoon Saomai climbed yesterday to 330, which villagers say is far too low.

"Revealing these numbers doesn't put pressure on local officials the way coal mining deaths do, so there is no reason to conceal them," said a spokesman for the Civil Affairs Ministry, Wang Zhenyao (王振耀), quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Wang didn't mention Saomai, but his comments followed claims by residents of China's southeastern coast that the true death toll is up to three times the figure reported by the government.

Saomai was the strongest typhoon to hit China since record-keeping began in 1949, according to the government. It sank more than 1,000 ships, destroyed 50,000 homes and blacked out six cities.

Xinhua said that residents in coastal Fujian Province's Fuding city have accused the government of underestimating the strength of the storm and failing to do enough to warn the public.

Local Chinese officials often are accused of trying to conceal the scale of deaths from industrial and natural disasters to avoid official punishment or public anger.

Local authorities are especially sensitive about coal mine accidents because the central government holds them responsible for enforcing safety in mines, which suffer more than 5,000 deaths a year.

After Tropical Storm Bilis hit China last month, killing more than 600 people, state media suggested that local officials in one badly hit area tried to conceal fatalities. The government hasn't confirmed this.

The death toll from Saomai rose after six more bodies were found in the sea off Fuding, where fishermen and sailors were killed when the storm sank ships that took refuge in its harbor, Xinhua said.

"Concealing disaster conditions causes loss through delay and is a serious mistake," Wang said. "So we don't believe anyone would dangerously and intentionally conceal disaster conditions, which is a criminal error."

The death toll from Saomai includes 241 people killed in Fujian, mostly in Fuding, and another 87 deaths in Zhejiang Province.

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