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1,300 feared dead in China mud horror

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 isolated valley town Zhouqu, tearing buildings from foundations.

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

“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,” he said.

The flooding swept through the town just after midnight. Mudslides after hours of downpours blocked Bailong River, creating a two-mile lake before it overflowed.

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 storeys of their buildings as the water surged.

Footage from state broadcaster CCTV, shot on a mobile phone, showed policemen rescuing five people, including two children, 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 were missing.

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. Both Mr Wen and China's President, Hu Jintao, urged rescuers to “spare no effort”.

The central government is skilled at mobilising efforts to deal with natural disasters. This success is one reason for the popularity of the ruling Communist Party. Officials said that 45,000 people had been evacuated.

Thousands have been moved to higher ground and temporary centres have been set up.

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