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China orders quick cleanup of river spill

Beijing offers apology to Russia

HARBIN, China -- Visiting Premier Wen Jiabao ordered local leaders to clean up toxic benzene by tonight from the river that provides water for this northeastern city, where residents already coping with subfreezing weather spent a fourth day yesterday without running water.

The foreign minister, meanwhile, delivered an unusual public apology to Moscow for possible damage from the spill on the Songhua River caused by a chemical plant explosion. The spill is flowing toward a Russian city.

Beijing's show of care and contrition was almost unprecedented and represented an effort to restore its damaged standing with both China's public and Moscow, a key diplomatic partner.

The government said benzene levels in the Songhua near Harbin were dropping. But it said running water would not be restored until 11 p.m. today, a full day after originally planned when the shutdown occurred. The situation has touched off panic-buying of bottled water in this city of 3.8 million people.

''We are a people's government. We should show a high degree of responsibility to the people," Wen told local leaders, according to the state television national news. ''We cannot allow even a single person not to have water."

Wen promised to ''conscientiously investigate the reasons and responsibility for the accident," the report said.

Residents stood in line to fill buckets and teakettles with water from trucks sent by the city government and state companies. The local government has been sending out such shipments daily, and companies with their own wells have been giving away water to their neighbors.

Beijing has promised to punish officials found responsible for the disaster. Local Communist Party officials and China's biggest oil company, which owns the chemical plant through a subsidiary, already have publicly apologized.

The disaster began with a Nov. 13 explosion at the plant in Jilin, a city about 120 miles southeast of Harbin. Five people were killed and 10,000 evacuated.

But it was only last week that Beijing announced that the blast poisoned the Songhua with about 100 tons of benzene. The spill is possibly the biggest ever of the chemical, a potentially cancer-causing compound used in making detergents and plastics.

The spill has been an embarrassment to President Hu Jintao's government. Hu has made a priority of repairing environmental damage from China's 25 years of sizzling economic growth and of looking after ordinary Chinese.

Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing's apology to Russia's ambassador, Sergei Razov, was reported on the state television evening news, which is seen by hundreds of millions of Chinese.

''Li Zhaoxing expressed his sincere apology on behalf of the Chinese government for the possible harm that this major environmental pollution incident could bring to the Russian people downstream," the report said.

It was an extraordinary step for the newscast, which usually carries only positive reports about China's foreign relations.

The government provided Russian officials and the UN Environment Program, which had offered cleanup help, information about the spill, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Officials in the Russian city of Khabarovsk have protested that China failed to tell them enough about the poison that is due to flow into Russia in about two weeks.

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