Extra harsh winter threatens China quake victims

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(Adds official clarification of death toll; writes through)

By Lucy Hornby

BEIJING, Nov 21 (Reuters) - An usually harsh winter is expected in the mountains of Sichuan, where millions of quake victims live in temporary housing that gives little protection against cold, rain and snow, provincial officials said on Friday.

The 7.9 magnitude quake, which hit Sichuan and surrounding provinces on May 12, killed more than 69,000 people, with another 18,000 unaccounted for, according to the official death toll.

"Some senior citizens and children are in need of basic equipment to keep them warm," Wei Hong, vice governor of Sichuan province, told reporters, adding that temperatures, which can fall well below freezing in the mountains, are expected to be up to 1 degree Celsius colder than normal this winter.

Wei gave the figure of 19,065 when asked about the number of children killed in schools that collapsed during the quake. That number, also reported by state television and the China Daily website, would imply that almost a quarter of the fatalities were schoolchildren.

But in an official clarification later on Friday, the Cabinet's spokesman's office said the number referred to a detailed list of identified dead.

The deaths of children, many buried under ruins of shoddily built classrooms while nearby buildings withstood the tremors, has been the most controversial aspect of the disaster.

After the earthquake, Beijing rapidly clamped down on reporting of poorly built schools and has been trying to silence grieved parents looking for redress in the court system by paying compensation instead.

"We've attached great importance to the questions of family members regarding school quality," Wei said. "The government will try its utmost to properly resolve their questions."

A Reuters survey of news reports of collapsed schools had put the toll from collapsed schools below 10,000.


With cold desending in the mountain towns, discontent is rising. Earlier this week, thousands clashed with police over a relocation project in Wudu, capital of Longmen in neighbouring Gansu province, where about 1.8 million were left homeless.

Many quake victims in Sichuan are still short of basics, including quilts and even food for the winter and into the spring, provincial officials said.

Millions left homeless face a bitter winter in thin tents, prefab housing, makeshift shelters and patched homes, adding concern over basic necessities to their grief.

A local official at the heart of the quake zone killed himself this week, the second such suicide in two months, state media said, in a sign of the emotional toll.

"Most of our cadres and people have overcome the shadow of the earthquake. They are working hard to rebuild their homes and most have found balance in their lives," Wei said.

"But we recognise that the earthquake has still left some deeply damaged in their hearts. We are very sympathetic about the suicides, but the reason for the suicides is not just the trauma but other causes too."

(Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jerry Norton)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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