BEIJING – BEIJING (AP) — Chinese authorities said Friday that Buddhist monks had been advised to leave an earthquake zone in a Tibetan region because specialized personnel were needed for reconstruction work, rejecting accusations that they had been told to leave for political reasons.
The death toll from last week's earthquake rose to 2,187, with schoolchildren accounting for some 200 deaths.
The information office for the State Council, China's Cabinet, issued a statement in response to The Associated Press' questions about why Tibetan monks were told this week to leave Yushu county, the epicenter of the quake in a remote corner of western Qinghai province.
"Now it's the phase for epidemic prevention and reconstruction and (it) requires specialized personnel to start their work," it said. "It would bring more difficulties to disaster relief work if lots of unprofessional personnel were at the scene."
Though "we fully recognize contribution of monks who came to the disaster zone from other areas, in order to ensure the scientific effectiveness and order of rescue work, we advised them to return to their monasteries," the statement said.
Earlier this week, Tibetan Buddhist monks told The AP they had been told to leave the area. Monasteries were given verbal orders to recall thousands of monks who had flooded to the region from neighboring provinces in the wake of the April 14 quake that left more than 12,000 people injured. A total of 9,145 people remain hospitalized as of Thursday, according to the Health Ministry.
China's communist leadership remains wary of Buddhist monks because of their loyalty to their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing says has pushed for independence in Tibet. At the same time, the government has capitalized on the full-scale relief operation to show it cares about China's Tibetan communities, some of which staged anti-government protests in 2008.
The State Council Information Office acknowledged the monks' "positive role" in quake efforts, saying they helped with rescue work, donating money and materials, organizing prayer sessions and conducting memorials for the dead.
State media quoted local officials in Yushu as saying Friday that they too appreciated the monks' work and did not request that they leave the quake zone.
"We did not give or receive any orders of such kind. Actually, we are very grateful for the role Tibetan monks played in the relief effort," Wang Yuhu, governor of Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
The quake killed 207 schoolchildren, a third of whom died after being trapped in collapsed school buildings, said Cering Tai, deputy director of the provincial education bureau, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The others died outside schools.
The earthquake affected 63 schools, with many school buildings cracked but not destroyed, which allowed many students to escape, he said. The vast majority of buildings in Jiegu town in Yushu, mostly made of mud-brick and wood, collapsed.
During a much larger and deadlier quake in Sichuan in 2008, more than 5,000 schoolchildren died when a disproportionate number of schools, compared to other buildings, collapsed. Investigations later determined they were badly constructed.
Thousands of quake survivors and rescue workers continued battling snow and heavy wind Friday in Jiegu, which was expected to continue through the weekend.
A provincial official acknowledged there had been some initial looting when relief was being distributed, "but this has been promptly stopped by the government," according to Xinhua.
Geng Yang, director of the Qinghai Provincial Department of Civil Affairs, denied reports that some people had stockpiled aid and then resold it at high prices.
He said the quake relief program has been transparent, and encouraged the public to supervise the relief operations by calling a special phone number to report any misconduct.