Sixteen Chinese children were confirmed dead Thursday after a landslide engulfed their school as they made up classes lost due to deadly earthquakes last month, state media said.
Three others were missing after the landslide buried the school and three farmhouses at Zhenhe village in the mountainous southwestern province of Yunnan, Xinhua news agency reported.
The slide also blocked a nearby river, creating a lake and forcing the evacuation of more than 800 residents living downstream, the agency said.
Almost 2,000 people had been mobilised to unblock the waterway and help in the rescue, it said, estimating the volume of earth at 160,000 cubic metres (208,000 cubic yards).
One person was seriouly injured by the mudslide, Xinhua reported.
The students at the Youfang Primary School would not normally have been in school this week as China is on a week-long national holiday.
But officials said the children were making up for lost time caused by disruptions stemming from two September 7 earthquakes that struck Yiliang county where Zhenhe is located, killing 81 people and leaving hundreds injured.
Web users immediately raised questions about the decision to bring the children back to school.
The safety of school pupils is a sensitive issue after thousands of students died when an 8.0-magnitude tremor in 2008 rocked Sichuan province in southwestern China and parts of neighbouring Shaanxi and Gansu.
“Are the officials all on vacation? Why was there no alert? Why were there students in school during the holidays?” a user of leading portal Sina.com’s popular micro-blogging service asked after the landslide.
Many schools collapsed in the 2008 quake, which killed more than 80,000 people in total.
This led to accusations that corner-cutting in construction projects and possibly corruption led to shoddy buildings, especially as many buildings near such schools held firm.
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Images broadcast on state television showed rescue personnel picking through landslide debris. It said the landslide occurred after sustained rains in the area.
Many buildings in Yiliang county are located precariously at the foot of steep mountainsides.
The landslide struck at 8:00 am (0000 GMT) as students were arriving for classes, reports said.
“More than 30 students were supposed to attend classes today and there were 18 pupils at school before the class started this morning,” a local official who gave only his surname, Yang, told AFP by phone.
“The school is just one single-storey teaching building.”
Yiliang county was one of the areas worst-hit by the two 5.6-magnitude earthquakes last month.
“Youfang is one of the schools that has resumed classes. I have no more details,” an official at the Yiliang Education Bureau who gave only his surname Zhang told AFP.
An earlier statement by the bureau had encouraged all classes to resume by October 5.
A family of three managed to escape before the landslide hit, Xinhua said, but gave no other details on them.
Last month’s quakes left 820 people injured and 201,000 displaced.
In the wake of that disaster, domestic media said authorities should emphasise safety and sustainability in future developments.
Despite decades of rapidly improving living standards, China remains prone to natural disasters such as floods, quakes, and landslides, with heavy loss of life.