China orders investigation into mass poisonings

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China's top leaders have ordered police to investigate a mass poisoning in the eastern city of Nanjing that is believed to have killed scores of people, many of them middle school students.

China's top leaders have ordered police to investigate a mass poisoning in the eastern city of Nanjing that is believed to have killed scores of people, many of them middle school students.

Government officials and hospitals yesterday refused to give an account of deaths in the poisonings, which were traced to a snack shop in Tangshan county, a rural district of Nanjing city.

More than 200 people had been poisoned and "a number" had died, according to reports in the government-controlled media. There was no immediate word on the cause of the poisonings, which struck early Saturday.

Newspapers in Hong Kong put the death toll as at least 41 and possibly as high as 100.

It wasn't clear if the poisonings were intentional or a result of spoiled food.

Reports said victims became sick after eating fried dough sticks, sesame cakes and glutinous rice bought at a branch of the Heshengyuan Soybean Milk Shop. Most of the victims were students at the nearby Zuochang Middle School and migrant construction workers. School officials refused to answer questions.

Government broadcaster China Central Television in a news program showed ambulances and military vehicles racing victims to the hospital, where many were being treated in hallways and reception areas. Children were shown lying two or three to a bed, while other victims included an elderly man and people in military fatigues.

Somber relatives stood and squatted in groups outside the Nanjing People's Liberation Army General Hospital, awaiting news of their loved ones. Police guarded entrances and checked identification cards of those entering the main patient ward.

The Communist Party's national headquarters in Beijing and China's Cabinet have ordered health officials and investigators to Nanjing. Police must make "the most strenuous efforts" to uncover the cause of the poisonings, official newspapers said.

People who answered phones at hospitals where victims were sent all refused to say how many had died, citing a city Health Bureau order not to provide information to journalists. Bureau officials refused to comment on the case, saying they had no obligation to do so. Local government officials and police would only say that an investigation was ongoing.

The papers said police immediately shut down the shop and are searching it for signs of poison.

No one answered calls to a phone number for the shop printed on its awning.

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