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Rescue hopes dim in slide-hit Chinese town

The death toll in the China mudslide disaster rose to 702 Tuesday with more than 1,000 people still unaccounted for, the Associated Press reported.
/ Source: news services

Chen Daochen knows he will never see his father or elder brother alive again. Yet still he digs through the thick yellow mud that cascaded through their home, killing four members of his family.

"I know they're dead. But I have to get them out. I have to see them with my own eyes or I won't know for sure," he said quietly, desperately pulling rolls of plastic pipes from the simple brick house to get at the bodies.

"At least the kids were not at home when it happened," Chen added numbly, a pile of damp school books at his feet slowly rotting in the damp heat.

Rescuers digging by hand through mud found a 52-year-old man who had been trapped for more than 50 hours inside a leveled apartment building in the remote town of Zhouqu, where more than 1,000 other people were still listed as missing. Rescuers with sniffer dogs discovered the man, Liu Ma Shindan, who was weak but breathing normally.

It was a scene of stunned grief repeated across Zhouqu, a remote town in northwestern Gansu province. At least 702 people died when a mass of mud and rocks swept down on sleeping residents at the weekend. Another 1,042 are missing.

Rescuers who have swarmed into Zhouqu were not giving up hope of finding anyone else alive, but they warned that chances are slim in the chocking mud, so thick in places it has piled up to what used to be the third or fourth floor of buildings.

Logs and stones had been laid over the sludge to ease access. They seemed almost to float when stepped on, threatening to give way, and plunge rescuers into the morass.

"It's different from an earthquake. With all this mud it gets into every corner of a room. You drown," said Dan Xiaoli, a rescue worker from next-door Sichuan province, where tens of thousands died in a devastating earthquake two years ago.

"But we need to keep looking in case there is a miracle," she added, dressed in orange overalls and carrying a first aid kit.

Close by, a crowd gathered expectantly, peering down to where troops have pried open a small hole in what was the roof of a house, using their hands, a few shovels and some sledgehammers.

"Keep quiet! Step back! We can hear someone in there!" shouts one soldier. A reverent hush fell, and people edged back.

Five minutes later, the silence became sobs as the pale white arm of a dead man poked through the rubble. Even the most curious of bystanders recoiled from the smell.

Two women collapsed wailing, unable to stand their grief, and were carried off by relatives. Almost everyone has a tragic story to tell. Many escaped by luck alone.

"The first to fourth floors of my building were swamped. We were on the sixth. Dozens of my neighbors are still in the mud. We've had to give up trying to get their bodies out," said Liu Jiesheng, 40, his eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep.

While relief supplies and workers continue to arrive, poor roads and the area's remoteness were hampering efforts.

The nearest airport is a seven-hour drive away, mountains tower over settlements in the valleys, and on the main artery from the south, traffic has to be strictly limited.

"The road is too narrow. We have to control what goes up there or there will be chaos and everything will get blocked," said one policeman, after a brief argument with some officials from Sichuan trying to bring in bottled water.

Yet despite the tough restrictions, much heavy lifting equipment sits idle, unable to either get into the town or be used in large parts of it, lest it slip into the mud.

The government said 1,042 were missing and about 45,000 were evacuated. It was not known how many of the missing were in danger or simply out of contact as workers rushed to restore communications.

More rain is expected in the region in coming days, the China Meteorological Administration said. Tents, blankets, food and water were all being rushed to the isolated area, creating traffic jams on the few roads in.

Flooding in China has killed about 1,800 people this year and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage across 28 provinces and regions.

Flooding continues to threaten Pakistan
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari returned home to a storm of criticism after visiting Europe as his country was gripped by the worst floods in its history. His arrival Tuesday came as thousands of people fled a major city in central Pakistan as rivers threatened to submerge the area.

And rescuers in the desert mountainsides in Indian-controlled Kashmir recovered more bodies, with the death toll rising to 165 from flash floods. Thousands of army and paramilitary soldiers continued clearing roads and removing the debris of hundreds of homes flattened in the Ladakh region.

About 200 remained missing around Ladakh, said Lt. Col. J. S. Brar, an army spokesman. With the road links being restored, nearly 300 people who fled to higher ground have returned to their homes, he said.

Two weeks of flooding in Pakistan have killed 1,500. Amid the relentless rains, President Zardari  an unpopular figure to begin with — took off for a visit to France and Britain. His aides said he had to make the trip for diplomatic reasons, especially to Britain, whose Prime Minister David Cameron had recently accused Pakistan of exporting terrorism.