More than 200 killed as dam bursts in China

PEKING (Reuter, AP) - A dam burst in China's remote western Qinghai province, sending cascades of water that wiped out several villages and killed at least 223 people, officials and health workers from the region said yesterday.

A Xinhua News Agency report called the incident a 'disaster', but gave no details on the number of dead or the amount of property loss other than to say homes were flooded.

The dam of Gouhou reservoir burst on Friday in Gonghe county, 110km (68 miles) south-west of the provincial capital, Xining, the report said. It held 2.6m cubic metres (91m cubic feet) of water. Two days passed before the official media reported the disaster, an indication that the human toll was heavy.

Police in the provincial capital of Xining confirmed a local television report yesterday which said at least 223 people had died, but declined to give details. Numerous provincial officials reached by telephone in Xining declined to discuss the disaster.

'Local television reported that up to now the death count stands at 223, but there may still be others,' a doctor at People's Number One Hospital in Xining said late last night. Thousands of people were injured and many missing as a result of the dam burst, which occurred at about 11pm on Friday, the local television report said.

Economic losses were estimated at more than 100m yuan (pounds 11.3m), the television said. 'A big hole split open and the water rushed out, washing away several villages,' the doctor quoted television as saying. Several Xining hospitals said they were treating patients airlifted or driven in from the disaster scene.

The agency gave no explanation for the delay in reporting the accident. It is common practice for China's state-controlled media to block news reporting of disasters until officials arrive and can claim credit for rescue work. Xinhua said the situation was under 'good control' and that relief supplies arrived at the scene at midday on Saturday.

Central government officials ordered an investigation into the cause of the accident and Vice-Premier Zhu Rongji has taken a personal interest in the welfare of victims. 'Zhu stressed the need to make the best possible arrangements for the disaster victims and to organise them to rebuild their homes and to resume a normal life,' Xinhua said.

Natural and man-made disasters kill many thousands of Chinese every year - with mining accidents alone taking an average of more than 10,000 a year, or nearly 30 a day.

The last time an entire village was reported wiped out was in September 1991, when a huge mudslide crashed through a hamlet in southern Yunnan province, killing at least 218 people.