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Series of explosions kills 108 in China

Police launch major manhunt to catch key suspect

SHIJIAZHUANG, China — Police launched a manhunt Saturday for a key suspect a day after a string of blasts killed at least 108 people and wrecked four factory housing blocks in this northern Chinese city.

A wanted notice was printed in newspapers and posted at public buildings. A police spokesman said Jin Ruchao, 40, is the prime suspect in the explosions but would not discuss a possible motive or other details.

"The special assignment team is exerting all efforts to break this case," said the spokesman, who declined to give his name.

Jin lived in worker housing at the No. 3 Cotton Mill, the notice said. An explosion there early Friday leveled a five-story apartment block housing 48 families. It was not immediately clear whether Jin lived in that building or another in the same compound.

The explosions in Shijiazhuang, an industrial center about 170 miles southwest of Beijing, also damaged apartment blocks owned by another cotton mill, a railway agency and a construction firm. They occurred within an hour and several miles of each other.

State television said the death toll had risen to 108 with 38 people injured.

"The preliminary finding of police investigations is that this explosion was caused by a criminal," the report said without giving any details.

Jin is also wanted for a March 9 killing in southwestern China, according to the notice offering a reward of $6,000 — nearly 10 times the annual urban wage.

Explosions are common in China, both accidental and intentional. The country has suffered an upsurge in crime and gangland activity in recent years. Industrial explosives, freely available, often are used in attacks blamed on gangsters, jilted lovers and others.

Residents of Shijiazhuang, a city of 7 million southwest of Beijing, expressed surprise at Friday's attack.

"Law and order has always been pretty good here. Now I don't know," said a man selling bicycle seats who declined to give his name. "There is unemployment and there are people who don't like the government, but isn't that the same in a lot of cities?"

Others said the scale of damage was so great that if it was a planned attack, it seemed impossible for one person to arrange alone.

Wang Zhongyu, secretary-general of China's cabinet, toured the explosion sites Friday, visited the injured in hospitals and met local officials, state media said.

Chinese leaders are eager to express concern for public safety. Their image has suffered since a string of fatal fires, building collapses and other disasters have highlighted chronic disregard for safety.

"President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji are very concerned with the tragic explosions," Wang was quoted as telling a survivor.

The disaster came a day after Zhu issued a nearly unprecedented public apology for an unrelated March 6 explosion. That destroyed a village schoolhouse in southern China, killing at least 42 people, most of them children.

The blast at the Shijiazhuang No. 1 Construction Co. housing collapsed a five-story-high, 25-foot-wide section of the building.

Neighbors dug through the rubble with their hands looking for survivors, said a neighbor who asked to be identified only by the surname Lu. He said he saw bodies carried away but did not know how many died there.

Local officials refused to give details. A hospital employee said emergency facilities received orders not to give out information.