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Monday, 16 September, 2002, 06:58 GMT 07:58 UK
Rat poison blamed for Chinese deaths
Rescuers rush victim to hospital
Beijing appears to be playing down the crisis
The authorities in China say rat poison is the most likely cause of a mass outbreak of food poisoning that killed dozens of people in the east of the country.


One minute he was sitting there eating and the next he stood up and keeled over

Witness Peng Yongqing
Officials are refusing to say exactly how many have died, but some estimates put the number at more than 100.

The victims had all eaten breakfast food from the same restaurant in the small town of Tangshan, in Jiangsu province.

Map of China showing Beijing and Tangshan
Police are not saying whether they suspect deliberate poisoning, but a provincial government official quoted by the China Daily newspaper said the poison could have been put in the food on purpose.

The restaurant's owner has been detained by police, and the premises closed.

Initial reports in the state-controlled media said 41 people had died, including schoolchildren, but other estimates had the figure of more than 100.

The BBC's Damian Grammaticas in Beijing says that since then reports appear to have been censored, with references to the number of casualties removed.

Questioning

The deaths in Tangshan began on Saturday morning, when hundreds of people collapsed after eating breakfast in a fast-food restaurant.

Investigators have sealed off an alley near the restaurant, where its food was cooked at a stall.

Hospital staff in Tangshan
Local hospitals were swamped by victims
Victims had eaten breakfast snacks such as dough sticks and rice balls from the tiny fast-food outlet, a branch of the Heshengyuan Soy Milk chain on Tangshan's main street.

Witnesses described how people began spitting blood and then collapsed after taking just a few mouthfuls of the snacks.

Peng Yongqing, who owns a store next to the outlet, said he saw one elderly man collapse after eating breakfast from the outlet.

"It happened right there in front of my store," he told Reuters news agency.

"One minute he was sitting there eating and the next he stood up and keeled over. We all thought he was choking, we had no idea what was wrong."

Mr Peng said the man had died on the way to hospital.

Many of the victims were boarding school students at the Zuochang Middle School, which bought breakfast from the shop each day.

Migrant construction workers were also among those affected.

Sensitive time

Correspondents say mass poisonings are not uncommon in China, and although most are due to negligence, some have been deliberate.

In August 2001, 120 people fell ill in a restaurant in Ningxiang, Hunan Province, after being poisoned by the owners of a noodle factory.

And there have been several cases of poisoning in schools in recent years.

Most recently, also in Hunan, 92 primary schoolchildren were stricken by poison in their lunch.

The Communist Party's major national congress is due to begin in just a few weeks' time and correspondents say the authorities are highly sensitive about any bad news ahead of it.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Damian Grammaticas
"The poison was fast acting and in many cases fatal"
See also:

15 Oct 01 | Europe
11 Oct 00 | Americas
06 Aug 02 | Country profiles
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