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Suspect Arrested in China Poisoning - 2002-09-17

Chinese police have reportedly arrested a man suspected of causing Saturday's mass poisoning in eastern China. Chinese authorities still have not confirmed how many people died in the incident.

Hong Kong media report that the suspect has been arrested for putting rat poison in food at a snack shop in the eastern city of Nanjing. The poisoning reportedly killed dozens of people, and sickened around four hundred.

Chen Zhengping reportedly was caught aboard a train leaving Nanjing, but there are conflicting media accounts about his identity. Some Hong Kong newspapers say he was a cousin of the snack shop owner and poisoned the food out of envy over his relative's success.

Chinese officials have so far not confirmed the death toll.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kong Quan told reporters in Beijing Tuesday that police in Nanjing are working day and night to solve the case and verify the identity of the victims.

A report on the web site of the official Communist Party newspaper People's Daily said early Tuesday that 49 people were killed most of them schoolchildren. But by the afternoon, that figure had been removed. The China Daily newspaper says 300 people have been hospitalized.

Some local residents and reporters complained that China has ordered a news blackout about the death toll in Saturday's poisoning.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman said he does know about any order to the news media not to release the toll. But Mr. Kong said that in any country, police investigating a case may not want outside interference to disturb their work. China often suppresses information about events that might hurt the image of its government. Beijing has in the past blamed other poisoning attempts on people seeking revenge or bearing grudges. The country also has a problem with lax enforcement of health laws and with restaurants and food processors using tainted and unsafe products in food.