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27 Nov 2005 08:50
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has visited Harbin in the country’s north-east and ordered local leaders to restore running water to 3,8-million people who spent a fourth day without supplies after a benzene spill in a nearby river. Beijing has also apologised to Moscow for the toxic chemicals flowing toward Russia.
The government said Harbin’s water system, shut down on Tuesday after a chemical-plant explosion spewed benzene into the Songhua River, wouldn’t resume service until late on Sunday night—a full day later than earlier planned.
“We cannot allow even a single person not to have water,” Wen said in a meeting on Saturday with local leaders, state television reported on its national evening newscast.
Also on Saturday, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing issued an unusual public apology to Moscow’s ambassador for any damage caused when the poisonous slick flows across the border into Russia’s Far East.
Beijing’s public show of care and contrition was almost unprecedented, and represented an effort to repair its damaged standing with both China’s public and Moscow, a key diplomatic partner.
Wen promised to “conscientiously investigate the reasons and responsibility for the accident”, said a report on the state television national evening news.
Beijing has sent investigators to Harbin and promised to punish officials responsible for the disaster.
Communist Party officials and the state-owned oil company whose subsidiary runs the chemical plant already have apologised.
The disaster began with a November 13 explosion at a chemical plant in Jilin, a city about 200km south-east of Harbin.
But it was only this week that Beijing announced that the Songhua was poisoned with about 100 tonnes of benzene, a potentially cancer-causing chemical used in detergents and plastics. Russian officials complained that China failed to tell them enough about the poison flowing toward the border city of Khabarovsk.
The spill is an embarrassment to President Hu Jintao’s government, which has made a priority of repairing environmental damage from 25 years of rapid economic growth.
The foreign minister’s apology to Russian ambassador Sergei Razov was reported on the China Central Television evening news, a rare step for the newscast, which usually carries only positive reports on China’s foreign relations.
In Khabarovsk, Russian authorities were preparing plans including a shutdown of water systems in cities that drink from the river.
Government newspapers have accused local officials of reacting too slowly to the disaster and criticised them for failing to tell the public the truth until this week.
On Saturday, residents of Harbin stood in line in sunny but subfreezing weather to fill buckets and tea kettles with water from trucks sent by the city government and state companies.—Sapa-AP
Associated Press correspondent Alexa Olesen in Beijing contributed to this report
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