BEIJING: The bodies of all 18 schoolchildren buried under a landslide in China have been recovered, officials said Friday, as authorities defended returning them to school following recent deadly earthquakes.
The landslip, triggered by sustained rains, buried the school and three farmhouses on Thursday in southwestern China's Yunnan province, where a pair of earthquakes last month killed 81 people and injured hundreds.
Any last hopes for survivors among the children in Zhenhe village, where the landslide struck, evaporated early Friday when local officials said rescuers had pulled the body of the last missing child from the debris.
The disaster is likely to raise questions over why the pupils had been brought back into the school, located in a deep mountain valley, when China was on a week-long national holiday.
School safety is a sensitive issue in China after thousands of students died when an 8.0-magnitude tremor centred in Sichuan province rocked the southwest of the country in 2008.
China has a highly competitive education system built around cramming for high-stress testing that determines entry into good schools later.
Local officials in Yiliang county, which includes Zhenhe, have said the dead children needed to make up lessons lost due to disruptions stemming from the September earthquakes in the area.
The state-run Xinhua news agency said they had been brought in to study from another school which was badly damaged in those tremors, which had magnitudes of 5.6 and left more than 800 people injured and 201,000 displaced.
"The mountains around the school are covered with dense vegetation, and there were no signs of potential landslides during investigations after the earthquake," said Xiao Shunxing, deputy county chief, according to the Yunnan Information news website.
But domestic media quoted nearby residents saying they had been concerned about children walking long distances to school over muddy mountain paths so soon after last month's earthquakes.
"If the students were off for holidays, there wouldn't be this tragedy," said a user of Sina.com's micro-blogging service, one of many outraged postings.
"Couldn't they just take time making up the missed classes? Officials, schools, and teachers are too eager for quick success and instant benefits. They are the the biggest killers."
The body of a villager who had also been buried under the rubble was recovered later Friday, bringing the final toll to 19, according to a statement by the county government.
Like many schools and homes in the poor and rugged region, the disaster-hit primary school was located at the base of steep slopes.
Mountainous southwestern China is prone to deadly landslides, a threat worsened by frequent seismic activity. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed more than 80,000 people, triggered giant landslides that left whole mountainsides scarred.
Many schools collapsed in that disaster, triggering accusations of shoddy construction, corner-cutting and possible corruption, especially as many other buildings near such schools held firm.
There have so far been no such allegations in the Yunnan landslide.
Families who lost children will receive compensation payments of 20,000 yuan ($3,200), media reports said.
State media reports initially identified the school as the Youfang Primary School, but subsequent reports have said its official name is the Tiantou Primary School.