June 5, 2015 / 12:06 AM / 3 years ago

Elderly relative lashes out at Beijing's handling of ship tragedy

JIANLI, China (Reuters) - An irate relative of two passengers missing aboard a Chinese cruise ship which capsized on the Yangtze River publicly accused the government of treating its people like enemies, as officials struggled to contain public anger over the disaster.

An aerial view of rescuers working on righting the capsized cruise ship Eastern Star, in Jianli, Hubei province, China, June 5, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Only 14 survivors, one of them the captain, have been found after the ship carrying 456 overturned in a freak tornado on Monday night. A total of 103 bodies have been found.

Frustration over the lack of information has grown among families of the missing. Seventy-year-old Xia Yunchen burst into a just finished news briefing with senior officials on Friday, screaming and demanding answers.

“Is it necessary to treat the common people, one by one, as if you are facing some kind of formidable foe?” said Xia, whose sister and brother-in-law were aboard the Eastern Star.

Xia, from the eastern city of Qingdao, told reporters she had wanted to get into the news conference to hear for herself what the government was saying, and that she wanted an honest investigation because family members doubted the weather was the real cause of the disaster.

“You view the common people as if we are all your enemy. We are tax payers. We support the government. You had better change your notion of this relationship. You are here to serve us. You need to be humane,” Xia said, before being escorted out.

Police then kept reporters back behind a closed gate while they moved away relatives and passersby on the street outside.

About 1,200 relatives have converged on Jianli county in Hubei province where the disaster happened.

“My most important hope in coming here is still the same - to lay eyes on my mother,” said Zhang Junmin.

Another relative, who asked not to be identified, sent a Reuters reporter a picture from their hotel room showing three police cars parked outside, by way of explaining why they were too nervous to meet.

Aware of the sensitivity of the disaster, the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, China’s apex of power, called on local authorities to take measures to help grieving families and to “earnestly safeguard social stability”.

“NO COVER-UP”

Rescuers, many from the military, worked through the night to right the four-deck ship. Pictures on state television showed the ship, which had capsized completely, sitting upright in the water. Large dents and gashes scarred its blue roof.

Rescuers will continue searching for the victims as they bail out water from the ship for the next five to six hours, said Xu Chengguang, a spokesman for the transport ministry, at a news conference.

Dozens of relatives gathered in front of the crematorium, demanding to be allowed inside. Many carried bouquets of flowers.

The crematorium gates were manned by uniformed police, who initially refused to let them inside. They were later allowed in after foreign reporters arrived on a government-organized bus tour.

Relatives have asked the government to release the names of survivors and the confirmed deaths, and questioned why most of those rescued were crew members.

Some have demanded to know why the boat did not dock in the storm, and how the rescued captain and crew members had time to put on life vests but did not sound any alarm.

Beijing has pledged there would be “no cover-up” in the investigation.

Police have detained the captain and chief engineer for questioning, though authorities have given no details. An initial investigation found the ship was not overloaded and had enough life vests on board.

On Thursday, more than 200 divers had groped through murky water after cutting through the hull, searching every cabin on board, but found no more survivors.

Additional reporting by Kim Kyung-Hoon and Engen Tham in SHANGHAI; Writing by Ben Blanchard and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Paul Tait and Jeremy Laurence

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