Villagers Block Roads Into Beijing; City Readies Hastily Built SARS Hospital

Nervous villagers around China's capital blocked roads with dirt and stones to keep out people with SARS (search), as authorities prepared to open a new 1,000-bed hospital north of Beijing for patients with the illness.

At a half-dozen farm villages visited by an Associated Press reporter on Beijing's northern outskirts, barricades lay across roads into the communities. Signs told outsiders to stay away. Residents were allowed to leave, but volunteer guards sprayed their vehicles with disinfectant when they returned.

It wasn't clear whether the barriers were considered a violation of an order by China's central government this week banning local communities from blocking traffic from Beijing (search) and other hard-hit areas. One township official said his government had authorized the barriers.

At a cluster of farmhouses within sight of the new, hastily built SARS hospital, set amid cornfields north of Beijing, a chest-high pile of dirt spread beyond the edges of the road. A hand-lettered sign in red on a scrap of plywood said, "SARS Prevention, No Entry."

"We'll stay here and keep this roadblock up until the threat of SARS passes," said a 30-year-old farmer dressed in cloth shoes and a worn military-style jacket who was guarding the roadblock with two neighbors. He would give only his common surname, Xiao.

Despite the nearness of the SARS hospital, Xiao said, "We're not worried about that. They can keep it under control."

The new hospital is part of massive efforts over the past two weeks to stop the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome in Beijing, where officials Thursday reported seven more deaths, raising the capital's death toll to 82. A total 1,570 cases have been reported in Beijing.

The city has shut down schools, sending 1.7 million students home, and ordered cinemas and other entertainment sites to close.

Nationwide, the Health Ministry (search) raised the national death toll by 11 to 170 and reported 187 more new cases, bringing the total to 3,647, the ministry said.

Among the infected were two Beijing employees at China Central Television, the main government network, said a station official, who would only give her surname, Wang. The official wouldn't provide their job titles.

The global death toll from the respiratory disease believed to have emerged from southern China (search) was at least 394. More than 5,400 cases have been reported in about 20 countries.

In Hong Kong (search), five more deaths lifted the toll to 162, but there were only 11 new cases reported on Thursday, the lowest figure since officials began releasing daily statistics in March.

The numbers in Hong Kong, which has had 1,600 cases so far, seem to be coming down steadily, experts said.

Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan said Wednesday that no SARS cases have been reported in villages around Beijing. But he warned of potential disaster if the virus spreads into poorer areas that lack the capital's health care resources, and said rural households had been issued thermometers and told to check family members every day for fever -- a key SARS symptom.

The rising toll of deaths and infections in Beijing sparked panic last week, with thousands of people fleeing the capital and others stocking up on food for fear the city of 13 million people might be sealed off.

The government says the new Beijing hospital, next door to an ostrich farm near the suburban hot spring town of Xiaotangshan, was built in eight days by 7,000 laborers who worked around the clock.

Wang, appointed only last week after his predecessor was accused of mishandling the outbreak, said the first 195 patients were ready to move in.

Police in Beijing say they have checked drivers and passengers of thousands of vehicles arriving in the capital for SARS symptoms, but haven't found anyone infected.

Elsewhere, reports that cities and towns were barring all vehicles from Beijing prompted the order Tuesday by the central government banning such efforts. It said they could jeopardize the movement of medical supplies.

Despite that order, an official of the Xiaotangshan township government said Thursday it had authorized roadblocks. He was patrolling the area on a motorcycle and spoke as it was being sprayed with disinfectant at one makeshift barrier.

"Prevention comes first," said the township official, who wouldn't give his name.

At the village of Houniugang, about one mile from the Xiaotangshan hospital, a wheelbarrow blocked the road and a stern-face man with a crewcut and a red armband that said "Security Patrol" said no outsiders were allowed. A roadside stand was set up to spray the vehicles of residents with disinfectant.

In Taiwan, the China External Trade Development Council announced the cancelation of Computex -- one of the world's major computer exhibitions, which was planned from June 2-6.

In India, 200 people were quarantined for fear they may have SARS. India has reported 19 cases and no deaths.