PEASANTS forced off their land by the Three Gorges Dam have accused local officials of stealing huge amounts of resettlement money. They also charge them with demanding bribes, pocketing compensation payments and registering relatives as relocatees. The accusations - made in petitions by peasants in Yunyang county and obtained by the International Rivers Network, a US-based organisation - were confirmed in interviews with peasants and officials. According to the Economic Daily, the National Audit Office found officials had embezzled 232 million yuan (HK$217 million) from funds earmarked for resettlement. They have been discovered inflating claims and taking kickbacks from construction companies, which have then built defective bridges, roads and buildings. The pattern of corruption in Yunyang had been found all over the region, where 1.2 million will be forcibly resettled. In December, Premier Zhu Rongji toured the project and sacked more than 100 officials in a bid to stamp out corruption, which is provoking unrest and fears construction work is so shoddy buildings might collapse. 'Corruption is now the greatest problem. We receive letters from people protesting all the time,' said an inspector in Fengdu, one of the cities along the Yangtze that will be inundated when the dam is completed. 'I am often offered thick envelopes stuffed with cash to say nothing.' In 10 years, the resettlement budget has swollen from 17.5 billion yuan to 70 billion yuan, and officials say it is expected to be more than 100 billion yuan by 2003 when the first stage of the inundation takes place. In Yunyang county, petitions on behalf of more than 10,000 peasants have been sent to the central Government warning of brewing social unrest. 'Compensation provided to rural residents is woefully insufficient for them to carry out resettlement and establish a new life,' complained a joint petition in July 1997. Another, signed by 80 individuals and work units in Gaoyang, part of Yunyang county, said: 'The Population Resettlement Office has refused to abide by the party's policies and is swindling and cheating the country out of tremendous amounts of money. 'In the future, when desperate relocatees rush to government compounds begging the Government for food, what then?' Another warned: 'Once conflict breaks out it will be too late for the central Government to send down officials to handle the matter.' Gaoyang peasants confirmed the charges in the appeals, the last of which was sent in August, but said there had been no response. However, inspectors found substandard building work and arrested seven township officials for embezzling five million yuan last year. They have since been released. 'The local police don't dare prosecute them,' one peasant said. The authorities have not fulfilled promises to replace the farmland that will be submerged and are now trying to persuade thousands to migrate to Xinjiang and live in its paramilitary Construction and Production Corps. 'Last night, we were called to a meeting and told about the good life there, but no one wants to go,' one woman said. The new policy emerged after Mr Zhu ruled out opening up forested mountainsides to turn into terraced fields. Hainan Island, Hubei and Inner Mongolia are among the other provinces asked to accept settlers. 'In Hubei, they first showed people good land, but later, when people moved there, they were given poorer land so they came back,' a peasant said. 'Some tried moving to Xinjiang but soon returned because conditions were too harsh,' another said.