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China: 5,335 Students Died In Sichuan Earthquake

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BEIJING — China said Thursday that 5,335 students died or remain missing from last year's Sichuan earthquake, the first official tally for students in what became a politically charged issue because of allegations of shoddy school construction.

No reason was given for the release of the number now, just days before the one-year anniversary of the disaster that launched an outpouring of grief around China and united the country in a massive rescue effort.

The official Xinhua News Agency said the overall death toll for Sichuan province in the May 12 earthquake was unchanged at 68,712. Some 18,000 people are still officially listed as missing, and are presumed dead.

The government released tolls for the dead and missing weeks after the 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit Sichuan and several other provinces, but refused until now to give a toll for the number of students. It has been a sensitive issue because of widespread accusations that almost 7,000 classrooms crumbled because of slipshod construction methods or because building codes were ignored.

Many parents of dead children have demanded that authorities be made answerable for the collapses of the schools.

The official China Daily said Thursday that the Cabinet had ordered that safety controls over the construction and rebuilding of schools be strengthened.

A statement from the Cabinet said there would be severe punishment for those who engage in illegal practices.

"The quality of school buildings is a concern of the social stability and should be the focus of local authorities at present and in the coming days," it said.

The deaths of the children also touched a nerve nationwide and raised questions about corruption and mismanagement that have flourished amid China's breakneck economic growth.

Police and others have blocked parents of the dead children from staging protests to seek information. A recent Amnesty International report chronicles instances in which dozens of parents were questioned or detained by police while seeking answers from courts and local officials. It also said lawyers who took on such cases were pressured into dropping them.