China sends troops to dig out hundreds of people buried under mudslides

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Chinese troops dug with their hands through muddy debris yesterday to try to find 1,300 people missing when flood water and landslides swept through an isolated town killing at least 127 people. A wall of mud, rocks and water pummelled the isolated valley town of Zhouqu, tearing buildings from their foundations and overturning cars.

Miles of sludge prevented specialist diggers and rescue equipment from reaching the town in the remote, mountainous town in Gansu province and the boulder-filled waters levelled an area running for five kilometres.

"Since excavators can't reach the site, we can only use spades and our hands to rescue the buried," police officer He Youxin said. His rescue team saved 23 people and recovered 15 bodies, but was finding it difficult to locate others swept away by the floods. "It's hard to say what their chances of survival are," Mr He said.

The flooding swept through the town just after midnight while many residents were sleeping. Mudslides after hours of downpours blocked the Bailong River upstream of the town. The pressure of water created a lake that grew to two miles long before it overflowed and left half of the town inundated.

The flood water reached up to three storeys high on some buildings, enveloping them in mud unlikely to yield many survivors. "There was thunder and huge rain, and then the landslides started coming down," Zhouqu resident Bai told Reuters. "That was about midnight, so some people must have been in their homes, asleep and didn't know what was happening." Terrified people fled to higher ground or upper stories of their buildings after the start of the water surge.

Footage from state broadcaster CCTV, shot on a mobile phone, showed policemen rescuing five people, including two children, who were trapped on top of a seven-storey building, half of which had been washed away by the flood waters.

The pictures showed schools and homes destroyed and troops moving bodies wrapped in sheets from the debris-strewn wreckage.

The official Xinhua news agency said that a hydroelectric power station was destroyed. A village of 300 homes was reportedly buried and officials said that some 2,000 people remained missing.

"Many single-storey homes have been wiped out and now we're waiting to see how many people got out," said Han Jiangping, a merchant in Zhouqu. "We've had landslides before, but never anything this bad. People are trying to find their families and waiting for more rescuers."

About 2,800 troops and 100 medical aid workers were helping the relief effort, while 5,000 tents were being sent to the town. Residents had rescued about 680 people by midday, and the water level in the town was falling. However, more rain has been forecast for the area on Tuesday.

China's Premier, Wen Jiabao, known as "Grandfather Wen" for his hands-on approach when natural disasters strike, rushed to the disaster area, which has a large Tibetan minority. Both Mr Wen and China's President, Hu Jintao, had urged rescuers to "spare no effort" when trying to rescue the survivors. The central government is skillful at mobilising efforts to deal with natural disasters and this success is one of the reasons for the popularity of the ruling Communist Party. Officials said that 45,000 people had been evacuated.

"Torrential rains began to fall at around 10pm Saturday. Then there were mudslides and many people became trapped. Now sludge has become the biggest hindrance to rescue operations. It's too thick to walk or drive through," the county head, Diemujiangteng, told Xinhua.

Thousands of people have been moved to higher ground and temporary centres have been set up on playgrounds of two schools, said local officials.

Flooding has taken a terrible toll on China this year. Around the country, the worst flooding in a decade has killed more than 1,100 people, with more than 600 still missing. The floods have caused tens of billions of pounds of damage across 28 provinces and regions. Some 875,000 homes have been destroyed, 9.61 million people evacuated, and 22 million acres of crops destroyed.

On the orders of Mr Wen, a geologist by training, explosive experts were flying to the scene by helicopter to demolish a blockage in the Bailong river and release trapped waters from the two-mile lake.