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The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
"It remains unclear whether the explosion was an accident or whether foul play was involved"
 real 28k

Friday, 16 March, 2001, 13:25 GMT
China blasts flatten apartments

Scores of people are feared dead after a series of dawn explosions at factory workers' apartment blocks in north China.


It was really loud - many people thought it was an earthquake

Shijiazhuang resident
The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said up to 200 people had died following the blasts in Shijiazhuang city, Hebei province.

It suggested the explosions were probably caused by bombs, adding that many workers had been laid off.

"They are obviously criminal explosions and the death toll could reach 200," it added.


The atmosphere in the city is tense

Shijiazhuang official
The most serious of the four blasts completely destroyed a five-storey residential block at the No. 3 Cotton Mill.

State media reports confirmed 18 people had died.

But the Hong Kong centre said there were 170 people in the building and that only 28 people had been rescued after 12 hours.

Rumours

A second explosion brought down part of the residential block at No. 1 Cotton Mill, believed to house 15 families.

Witnesses said residents clambered out of their windows and climbed down ladders brought by police.

Another blast rocked a two-storey workers' residence near the No. 7 Cotton Mill.

Reports said there had been a fourth explosion in the city, but it was not clear where it was.

The blasts happened at around 0500 local time on Friday (2100 GMT on Thursday).

Residents said there were rumours that laid-off workers were responsible.

Beijing is in the middle of restructuring its industry and in recent years many old state-owned enterprises have laid off their workforce.

But correspondents said the No. 3 Cotton Mill was profitable and there was no firm evidence the blast was caused by a bomb.

Rescue

Rescue workers are still digging frantically through the rubble in search of survivors.

"It was really loud. Many people thought it was an earthquake," said one resident near the No. 3 mill.

"The exact number of casualties has not come out yet. They are still digging through the remains of the building," a factory official said.

Police have sealed off streets near the blast sites.

Shijiazhuang, which has a population of 1.3 million, is a centre of China's cotton textile industry.

Extortion

Last year Shijiazhuang executed a man who set off several bombs at public places, including crowded buses and shopping malls.

State media said he had been trying to extort money.

The latest explosions come less than a fortnight after a blast at a school in southern Jiangxi province killed nearly 40 children.

The government blamed the incident on a lone madman with a bomb.

But families of the dead say their children were being forced to make fireworks and the blast was caused by illegally stored explosives.

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See also:

15 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese leader sorry over school blast
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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