Beijing (AFP) Jan 30, 2008
China dispatched the army Wednesday to help millions of people stranded by snowstorms that have caused transport gridlock, crippled power distribution and left many towns and villages short on supplies.
At least 460,000 troops from the People's Liberation Army and paramilitary forces fanned out across parts of China where dozens of people have died amid the worst storms in 50 years, the government said.
"The People's Liberation Army has ordered its troops to go all out to help those battling the heavy snow in the southern part of the country," the state-run China Daily newspaper said.
"The troops were ordered to give whatever assistance local governments required."
China is intensifying its efforts to deal with the punishing weather, which has caused chaos on the roads and railways just as millions of people swamp the transport system for the annual Lunar New Year holiday.
State news agency Xinhua said China was waging "all-out war" as weather forecasters predicted more blizzards and icy conditions into next week.
Army helicopters will try to reach those suffering from cold and lack of drinking water in areas cut off by the snow, state media reported.
One million police officers also have been deployed to maintain order on congested and icy highways where traffic has ground to a halt, while the health ministry sent out 14,000 medics to treat the sick and injured, reports said.
At least 50 deaths have been blamed on more than two weeks of icy weather and 78 million people across large parts of central, southern and eastern China have been affected, the government said.
It said more than 30 million of China's 1.3 billion people had been hit by power outages as the big freeze has sharply raised demand for electricity while affecting distribution of coal, source of about three-fourths of China's power.
Perhaps even more alarming for the government, sharp rises in food prices were adding to inflation that was already at 11-year highs, causing concern in Beijing as inflation has historically caused social unrest here.
Vegetable prices have surged in 11 provinces, more than doubling in some areas, as trucks have been unable to deliver their loads due to the weather, the government said.
In a reflection of mounting government alarm, Premier Wen Jiabao went on a public relations offensive rare for Chinese leaders, wading into crowds of marooned train passengers.
"This has been very hard on everyone. Currently every level of government is working on getting electricity restored, after that transport will resume," he was quoted as telling the crowd at the main train station in the southern city of Guangzhou.
According to Xinhua, 217,000 passengers were stranded in Guangzhou on Wednesday, down from an estimated 500,000 reported on Monday.
Meanwhile, signs emerged that the gridlock is easing.
"The situation is improving," Xinhua quoted police ministry spokesman Wu Heping as saying of the traffic snarls.
"One of the key tasks now is to reopen the expressway linking Beijing with Zhuhai city in Guangdong province."
About 6,400 vehicles with 10,000 passengers remain stranded along the Hunan section of the road, he said.
More than a dozen major airports forced to close earlier in the week had all reopened by Wednesday, the civil affairs ministry said.
Long-distance bus traffic in regions hit hard by the storms also restarted services Wednesday, reports said.
But travel remained an exercise in anguish for millions, and police reinforcements were sent to many train stations as tense crowds waited for rail services to resume.
"I'm not sure if I'll get back (home)," said Xiao Zhou, a factory worker waiting at the train station in Guangzhou, hoping to head to his home province of Jiangsu far to the north.
"I've worked in Guangzhou for 10 years and I go home every year. I haven't seen such a mess before."
The state China Daily warned in an editorial the transport snarls could leave many areas short of even the most basic necessities.
"With much of the transport web disrupted, it will be difficult to have relief materials delivered where they are most needed," it said.
"We will have to prepare for a worst-case scenario."
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