800,000 stuck in southern city as China battles rail chaos

( dpa ) - An estimated 800,000 travellers remained stuck in the southern city of Guangzhou on Wednesday as hundreds of thousands of relief workers and troops continued efforts to restore the snow-crippled rail, road and power networks.

Premier Wen Jiabao on Wednesday met passengers at Guangzhou's main railway station, where 416,000 people were stranded, according to railway officials quoted by the local Guangzhou Ribao (Guangzhou Daily).

The rest of the travellers were waiting at other rail and bus stations in the city, which is a major transport hub that provides links between southern China and the rest of the country, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

The government deployed some 500,000 soldiers and 1 million police to restore power and transport networks brought to a halt by the worst winter to hit central areas in 50 years.

The weather has also caused a surge in food prices, prompting the State Food and Drug Administration China's to issue an emergency circular on Wednesday ordering local inspectors to prevent the sale of poor quality or fake food items.

Many factories, including the Chery car plant in Wuhu, Anhui province, suspended production because of the bad weather.

State television showed Wen telling the Guangzhou passengers through a megaphone that the government was doing everything in its power to restore normal transport services in time to get them home before the Chinese lunar new year, which begins on February 7.

Wen was shown making a similar speech on Tuesday to passengers at the central railway station in Changsha, the capital of the worst-hit province of Hunan.

The all-powerful 25-member Politburo of the ruling Communist Party on Tuesday told local officials to make "all-out efforts" to overcome the "formidable task" of disaster relief.

"The top priority task at present is to ensure electricity supply and smooth communications and transport by every possible means," the Politburo said in a statement carried by state media and issued after an emergency meeting led by President Hu Jintao.

The health ministry on Wednesday said it was sending 14,000 medical staff to some of the worst-affected areas and would distribute 3.45 million leaflets advising the public on how to prevent disease and stay warm.

The People's Liberation Army issued its order on Monday for troops to help local governments in affected areas, after heavy snow and freezing temperatures left hundreds of thousands of people stranded for several days at transport hubs.

The army had already dispatched 158,000 regular soldiers and 303,000 paramilitary police, Xinhua said.

About 1 million police were also trying to maintain traffic flow on snow-covered roads and bridges, the agency said.

The central government on Tuesday said it had sent 126 million yuan (17.5 million dollars) in relief funds to affected areas.

At least 24 people have died in buildings that collapsed under the weight of record snowfall or from falls on icy roads over the last three weeks, while dozens more have died in traffic accidents linked to snow and ice in Hunan and other provinces.

Another 25 people died on Tuesday when a bus plunged 40 metres from an icy road in the mountainous southwestern province of Guizhou.

The Chinese meteorological office has forecast more snowstorms this week in central and eastern China, including parts of Hunan and most of the eastern provinces of Anhui and Jiangsu.

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