Crushed bus lifts China dam area landslide deaths

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BEIJING, Nov 23 (Reuters) The death toll from a landslide near China's massive Three Gorges Dam soared today when state media revealed the collapse had crushed a bus, killing about 30 people.

The bus was found three days after Tuesday's landslide. Early reports from the Xinhua news agency had put casualties at the railway tunnel construction site at one worker killed, one injured and two missing.

The latest report from the scene in Badong county, Hubei province, said a road near the rail site had also been buried under rocks and earth.

Rescuers said there were no signs of life on the bus, a long-distance coach from Shanghai crowded with returning migrant workers. Just how many died remains unclear.

Records taken at a checkpoint close to the accident showed it had been carrying 27 people, but did not make clear whether that included or excluded three staff recorded when the bus left Shanghai, said Zeng Bing, a Badong government official.

The victims included a four-month-old boy and his 20-year-old mother, according to a local government Web site.

''We've starting digging out the bus, but the chances of survivors are really, really dim,'' said Zeng. ''It's been too long, and the bus was totally crushed.'' A manager from the Lichuan Lida Bus Company told Reuters that officials had been alerted to the missing bus only after relatives and the company contacted them with their worries.

The landslide struck near a tributary of the 660-km (410-mile) Three Gorges Dam reservoir, sending down 1,000 cubic metres of rocks and mud and scaffolding, according to a report on the Badong official Web site (www.cjbd.com.cn).

The disaster appeared to be the latest warning of geological threats around the dam. Reports have not speculated on whether the slide could be linked to the dam's rising waters, which are due to peak at 175 metres (574 feet) above sea level next year.

Badong is one of the steep areas along the reservoir that locals recently told Reuters have seen more landslides and tremors since the water level rose last year, increasing pressure on brittle slopes.

In September, dam officials warned of potential ''environmental catastrophe'' unless erosion and geological instability around the reservoir were controlled -- an abrupt departure from bright propaganda about the world's biggest dam.

Since then they have repeatedly said those threats are being dealt with and the dam's environment is better than expected.

''There have been no injuries or deaths'' due to dam-related landslides, Tong Chongde, a spokesman for the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee, told a small news briefing on Thursday. Phone calls to Tong on Friday went unanswered.

In the rainy summer of 2007, landslides across the dam area killed at least 13, according to local news reports and the dam's own environmental agency.

Rescuers used explosives to shatter boulders blocking access to the crushed bus, the Badong government said.

The provincial government said grieving families would be cared for and it ordered officials to ''protect social stability'', the Badong government report said.

REUTERS ARB ND1314

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