China prosecutors join quake school collapse probe

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING, June 16 (Reuters) - Chinese prosecutors have joined an official inquiry into 10 schools that collapsed in last month's devastating earthquake, preparing possible charges and seeking to ease public suspicions.

Authorities also began moving thousands of quake victims now menaced by the threat of new landslides caused by torrential rain in the area.

In Shifang, one of several areas of the southwest province of Sichuan ravaged by the May 12 quake, the procuratorate, or prosecutor, will seek to ensure that probes into the sensitive school issue are done fairly, the Legal Daily reported on Monday.

Grieving parents across Sichuan have complained that a disproportionate number of children died in the quake, due to lax and corrupt building practices. The quake killed nearly 70,000 people, with many thousands more missing and likely dead, and at least 9,000 of them were schoolchildren.

Police last week sought to stifle collective mourning and protests by parents. But authorities in Shifang are also seeking to ease parents' doubts that any official inquiries into the collapsed schools will be impartial.

Prosecutors there will "enter early into investigations into project quality at 10 collapsed schools in the city to gain first-hand material of construction quality at the collapsed schools, launching preliminary inquiries and prepare for possible investigations into professional crimes," the newspaper reported.

But the report also said many grieving parents doubt the impartiality of official inquiries into the schools.

The investigators were obtaining geological reports, blueprints and documents on building and inspections and also taking samples of steel, concrete and bricks.

"With the participation of the procuratorate, the unsteady emotions of some parents have been comforted," an anti-corruption investigator, Hu Hong, told the paper.

Shifang has a largely farming population of about 450,000 and during the quake schools collapsed at Hongbai, Yinhua, Luoshui and other towns.

The quake-hit region has been threatened by reverberations from the disaster, including swelling "quake lakes" caused by quake-triggered landslides.

On Monday, state television news reported that up to 70,000 people in Wenchuan county, the site of the quake epicentre, had to move to avoid possible landslides and mudslides caused by rain lashing shaken hillsides.

The brief report failed to shed light on how it was that the devastated county was still home to so many people or where they would be evacuated to.

As of Monday, 15,000 had already been moved and the others would be relocated over the coming week, a county official said.

(Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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