BEIJING – The death toll has risen to 254 in a landslide triggered by the collapse of an illegal mining dump, which engulfed a village in northern China, a government official said Sunday.
By late Saturday, rescuers had identified 128 of the dead bodies recovered after Monday's accident in Shanxi province's Xiangfen county, a duty officer surnamed Zhang at the Shanxi provincial government told The Associated Press.
The tally could rise as more than 1,000 rescue workers comb through 74 acres of sludge and mining waste covering the area, where hundreds more people could be buried.
The landslide Monday in Shanxi province's Xiangfen county was triggered when the retaining wall of a mining dump containing tons of liquid iron-ore waste collapsed, inundating the village of 1,300 residents and an outdoor market with hundreds of patrons in a matter of minutes.
Authorities have refused to give an estimate for the number of people missing. Earlier in the week, state media quoted government officials as saying hundreds could be dead but later denied making those statements.
Rescue workers and survivors have told The Associated Press that hundreds remained missing.
Identifying the bodies has proved difficult because most of the workers at the illegal mine were migrants from elsewhere in Shanxi, or from Chongqing city and central Hubei province, state media has said, citing rescuers.
The official Xinhua News Agency cited the head of the rescue effort as saying the team was searching for bodies in a 330-yard ditch filled with silt.
"This is the toughest phase of the ongoing rescue," the report quoted Lian Zhendong, chief of the rescue headquarters, as saying. "We will do our utmost to finish the search in three to five days."
Power and telecommunications have been restored at the site, Xinhua said. An Associated Press photographer at the site said police have now blocked access to the disaster zone.
The head of Xiangfen county and the county's Communist Party committee chief have been suspended from duty, Xinhua said.
Thirteen officials from the Tashan Mining Co., which ran the illegal mine, have been taken into police custody, including the chairman of the company's board of directors, the mine owner, the deputy mine chief, and company accountants, it earlier reported.
Xinhua said the accident led to direct economic losses of $1.34 million.
The disaster underscores two major public safety concerns in China: the failure to enforce protective measures in the country's notoriously deadly mines, and the unsound state of many of its bridges, dams and other aging infrastructure.