As the death toll in China's Sichuan province climbs, the nation’s bloggers have joined together in the search for a scapegoat.

Broadband connections across the country are pulsing with rumors of "earthquake omens" involving toads or butterflies -- all allegedly ignored by the authorities. Some even talk of a vast pre-Olympic conspiracy.

One blogger from Shandong province, in eastern China, wrote that more than a month ago, he went to his local earthquake resesarch center several times to report that his animals had been disturbed and restless.

But, he wrote: "They not only ridiculed me, they accused me of making up stories."

Other blogs link to Chinese newspaper reports of bizarre natural occurrences in the past few weeks.

The Chutian Metropolis Daily reported that on April 26, 80,000 tons of water suddenly drained from a large pond in Enshi, Hubei province. The province shares a border with Chongqing Municipality, which was devastated by the earthquake on Monday.

On May 10, a Sichuan-based newspaper, the West China Metropolis Daily, reported that hundreds of migrating toads descended upon the streets of Mianyang, the second largest city in the province which neighbors Wenchuan County, the epicenter of the earthquake.

In the city of Mianzhu, 60 miles from the epicenter, bloggers pointed to reports just weeks before the earthquake of a mass migration of more than one million butterflies.

Other bloggers seized upon an as yet unsubstantiated rumour that a Chinese geologist had predicted the earthquake in advance but had been stifled by the authorities, and by fear.

"On the seventh of May, a geologist predicted this [earthquake]," wrote one blogger. "But he didn't dare make it public."

Another blogger from Beijing wrote: “Everyone is talking about the rescue effort but they are not actually joining it.

“So, instead we should turn our thoughts to why [the authorities] didn’t forecast the earthquake and evacuate the people...

“Could it be that it was out of a desire for a peaceful Olympics?”

In an editorial in the Southern Metropolis Daily, the established journalist and commentator, Chang Ping, cited the growing tide of rumors and speculation surrounding the earthquake as evidence of the need for greater freedom of information in China.

He wrote: “As the phone lines went down, rumours multiplied ... I understood that the vast majority of this information could not be verified and that the police regarded it as the transmission of rumours punishable by criminal detention. But as someone with relatives in the affected area, I could not stop myself from seeking whatever information I could ...”

He added: ”The information was clearly unreliable, and it was difficult to tell what was true or false.

“Together it all spoke of a single problem, and that is the people’s fierce appetite for information when faced with a public incident.”

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