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Page last updated at 10:58 GMT, Thursday, 7 May 2009 11:58 UK

Chinese reveal child quake toll

Ruins of school in Beichuan
Many grieving parents have been stopped from returning to the schools

China says 5,335 schoolchildren died or remain missing after last year's devastating Sichuan earthquake.

It is the first time that Chinese authorities have given an official estimate for the number of children lost in the disaster.

The official number is far lower than other independent estimates, says the BBC's Quentin Sommerville in Beijing.

The issue is sensitive because of accusations that many schools were poorly constructed.

When the earthquake struck, a disproportionate number of school buildings collapsed, our correspondent says.

Chinese officials made the announcement days before the 12 May anniversary of the disaster that killed up to 90,000 people.

Delay

Tu Wentao, head of the Sichuan education department, said the delay in releasing the figures was because they had to be compiled from various government agencies.

"These numbers were reached through legal methods. We have wide agreement on these numbers," he told a press conference in the provincial capital Chengdu.

Quentin Sommerville
Quentin Sommerville, BBC correspondent in China
The fact that it has taken almost a year to arrive at an official estimate of the number of dead children - Chinese bureaucrats are often very quick with their statistics - gives an idea of the sensitivity around these deaths.

A greater percentage of school buildings collapsed than nearby government buildings; many parents feel local corruption and official neglect were almost certainly responsible.

They feel their children were not killed by the earthquake, but died because of dangerous school buildings.

China's response to the earthquake was fast, efficient, and overwhelming - and that is how the government chooses to remember it.

Nothing can interfere with the grand narrative that the earthquake tested China, and China triumphed.

News reports at the time of the disaster said 9,000 children and teachers died, while independent surveys put the figure closer to 7,000.

Liu Xiaoying, whose 12-year-old daughter was killed, says she believes the death toll is much higher than the 5,335 figure given by officials.

Sichuan authorities say the quake also left another 546 students disabled.

The figures do not include casualties from surrounding provinces.

The government has admitted that nearly 14,000 schools were damaged or collapsed in the magnitude-8 earthquake.

Parents have blamed local corruption and official neglect for the collapse of so many schools and for the loss of their children.

Many say that when they have complained they have been harassed or detained.

Liu Xiaoying has twice been to Beijing to petition the government.

"I hope the investigation will continue and that the people responsible will be seriously punished," she said.

"I hope the government will really do what they say they and not brush off us parents."

FROM BBC WORLD SERVICE

Correspondents say parents have been stopped from going back to the schools on sensitive occasions, and the authorities are believed to be monitoring parents leading up to the anniversary of the disaster.

Human Rights Watch has called on Beijing to be more open about the quake, compensate victims' relatives and allow parents to file lawsuits.

"Parents of student quake victims, who are trying to understand how and why their children died, deserve answers and compassion, not threats and abuse," Sophie Richardson, the group's Asia advocacy director, said in a statement.



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