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The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Beijing
"Mr Zhu made it clear there would be zero tolerance for such practices"
 real 28k

Thursday, 15 March, 2001, 18:29 GMT
Chinese leader sorry over school blast
Collapsed school building
The explosion caused extensive damage
The Chinese prime minister, Zhu Rongji, has made a rare public apology to the families of some 40 children killed in a school explosion last week.

The government said at the time the blast was the work of a lone madman, but parents said their children had been forced to assemble fireworks in class.


I want to solemnly commit before the people of this country that we will learn the lessons of this incident

Zhu Rongji
Speaking at the end of the annual session of the Chinese parliament, Mr Zhu admitted fireworks had been manufactured in the school, but insisted the practice stopped a year ago.

In a strongly-worded warning, he said officials at all levels faced the sack if they were involved in forced child labour.

Climbdown

The BBC's correspondent in Beijing, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, says although Mr Zhu 's statement fell short of admitting the government had been wrong, it was still a major climbdown.

State media said the explosion in the village of Fang Lin, in Jiangxi province, killed 38 children and four teachers, although families say more than 50 people died.

Map
Initially, Mr Zhu and other Chinese leaders denied claims of illegal practices, insisting the blast was the work of a deranged man.

But parents rejected the official version, insisting that pupils were forced to make dangerous fireworks.

They alleged that the local education authorities were in league with Communist Party officials, using the school to make money.

Zero tolerance

During a live broadcast at the end of parliament's annual session, Mr Zhu lowered his head and briefly closed his eyes.

"I want to apologise and reflect on my own work", he said in a hushed voice.

The Chinese prime minister speaking at the end of the annual parliamentary session
Mr Zhu promised to learn lessons of the blast
Mr Zhu said there was no evidence to suggest the blast was caused by fireworks, but he acknowledged doubts about the official explanation linger.

"The investigation will continue until we really get the full picture," he said.

He warned officials there would be no tolerance of such practices and anybody implicated would face severe punishment, right up to the level of provincial governor.

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See also:

09 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Beijing accused of school blast cover-up
07 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Fireworks blamed for China school deaths
02 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
China closes fireworks factories
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