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People responsible for bridge collapse in China to be punished

President of China has ordered severe punishment of people responsible for a bridge collapse that took at least 41 lives.

Rescuers on Thursday smashed through the rubble of the bridge, which was nearing completion, in the southern tourist town of Fenghuang searching for about two dozen people missing since Monday's collapse.

Updating the death toll from 36 on Wednesday, the official Xinhua News Agency said the chances of finding more survivors were "slim."

Still, all efforts should be made to find the missing and to take care of the 22 injured, Xinhua quoted President Hu Jintao as saying.

Authorities must "immediately set up a panel to investigate into the cause of the accident and bring those responsible to book," Hu was quoted as saying in Kyrgyzstan where he was on a state visit.

"Measures must be taken to ensure lessons are learnt from the accident so that similar accident shall not happen again," Hu said.

Underscoring the weight of Hu's comments, Xinhua said Hua Jianmin, secretary of the State Council, China's Cabinet, personally briefed local officials on the orders, Xinhua said.

The remarks were the first publicly reported reaction from Hu to the bridge collapse, which rekindled concerns about rushed, shoddy work amid China's torrid economic expansion.

Earlier this week, Premier Wen Jiabao called for a thorough investigation into the collapse, saying those responsible would be "severely dealt with."

Two officials from the builder, state-owned Hunan Road and Bridge Construction Co., have so far been detained.

State media said 123 construction workers were on the 42-meter-high, 268-meter-long (140-foot-high, 880-foot-long) vehicle and pedestrian bridge removing scaffolding when it suddenly collapsed.

Survivors say that there had been concerns among the workers about the large size of the four stone arches capping the bridge and the lack of steel reinforcements in the structure, which consisted mainly of stone and concrete.

Xinhua said a State Council team headed by Li Yizhong, China's top industrial safety official was probing problems with the project's "design, public bidding, construction, management or construction supervision."

"The incident caused a great loss and the reason for the collapse must be found out," Li, head of the State Administration for Work Safety, said on state television's main evening news broadcast. "We should find out the reason, the nature of the reason, and the persons responsible must be severely dealt with," Li said.

Construction began in March 2004, with the bridge due to open to traffic linking the town to a nearby airport at the end of this month.

Xinhua quoted an unidentified local official as saying the stone and concrete bridge had been chosen over a safer and more modern steel structure to ensure "it remained in harmony with the natural environment."

In one of China's previous worst bridge disasters, a county-level Communist Party official received a death sentence in 1999 for taking bribes and dereliction of duty in the collapse of a newly built bridge in the western city of Chongqing in which 40 people were killed.

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