China

Wen Jiabao pledges to punish officials amid rail crash fury

Reuters/Royston Chan

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao pledged Thursday to "severely punish" those responsible for a train crash in which at least 39 people died on a visit to the scene five days after the crash.

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Saturday’s collision, in which 39 were killed and nearly 200 injured, was the worst accident ever to hit China's rapidly expanding high-speed network. It sparked unusually outspoken criticism in state-run media and fury on web and microblogging sites.

"We will severely punish those responsible for the accident and those who hold esponsibilities of leadership in accordance with the country's laws," said Wen, who explained that he had not visited the scene before because he had been ill for 11 days.

He has ordered an "open and transparent" probe into the incident.

The accident has raised questions over whether safety concerns may have been overlooked in China's rush to build the world's biggest high-speed rail system in just four years.

A comment piece on the front page of the Communist Party paper People's Daily said Thursday that China "needs development, but does not need blood-smeared GDP".

The Chinese company that designed the signalling equipment for the train line apologised on Thursday after a senior railway official said "flaws" in the system caused the crash.

Shanghai Railway Bureau head An Lusheng earlier told investigators that the system "failed to turn the green light into red" after being struck by lightning, the first public admission the Chinese-made equipment was at fault.

Wen Jiabao’s public admission of illness was highly unusual in China, where the health of top leaders is considered a state secret.

But photographs on the central government website of Wen meeting a Japanese delegation the day after the crash appeared to contradict his claim, leading to speculation that leaders disagreed over how to handle the disaster.

Wen also called for efforts to "make China's high-speed railway exports really safe" after observers said that the accident could hamper Beijing's ambitions to sell the technology overseas.

Three senior railway officials have already been sacked over the disaster, and Beijing has ordered an "urgent overhaul" of national rail safety.

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