12/30/2003, 00.00
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Gas leak survivors return home cautiously

Chongqing (AsiaNews/agencies) -  Yesterday, thousands of residents returned home amid cautions and uncertainties related to the giant gas leak and explosion that occurred on Dec. 23 in Kaixian.  The official death toll stands at 234, while 6 other seriously ill victims were transferred to hospitals in Chongqing.

Local authorities said that most of the remaining 20,000 evacuees were allowed to return home yesterday with the help of government provided transport. Officials warned, however, that residents only eat dry foods and vegetables stored in their homes and refrain from drinking from the contaminated water supply.

One local farmer, Ni Huamian, said he would oblige with government warnings until authorities say it's safe to eat fresh food. But he said he has come up with his own safety checks: "I'm going to feed (my) crops first to the pigs. If the pigs don't die, then it should be OK to eat them."

In the meantime, a spokesman for PetroChina, a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corp, said that it was too early to assess the explosion's financial impact. Its parent company, CNPC, who ultimately owns the well that exploded on Dec. 23, has promised to compensate all victims for injuries and damages related to the accident. However, business at the gas field will soon continue as usual.

Yesterday PetroChina experienced a turbulent day on the stock market. Early trading of its shares fell early by 4.43%, but then rose by 3.16% to a record 16.10 HK dollar close. Yet market trading was not so hopeful for other public gas and oil companies, like CNOOC, whose shares fell by 4.16% at yesterday's close. Unstable trading appears linked to investors' confusion over announcements regarding the disaster's latest developments.

The industrial accident in Kaixian is said to be the worst ever in China. The resulting toxic cloud swept over a 25 sq. km area and caused more than 64,000 local villagers to be evacuated. (MS)
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