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Rat Poison Blamed in Chinese Snack Shop Deaths - 2002-09-16

Chinese officials suspect rat poison is to blame for a mass food poisoning that has apparently killed dozens of people in eastern China. Many of the victims were middle school students.

The official China Daily newspaper says rat poison that found its way into snack foods is the most likely cause of the deaths and illnesses.

It quotes Zhou Qiang, a Jiangsu provincial government spokesman, as saying the poison may have been deliberately put into food served at a snack shop that delivers breakfast to several schools on the outskirts of Nanjing.

The authorities refuse to release a death toll in the poisonings, which took place Saturday. But China Daily says dozens of people may have been killed and more than 200 have fallen ill. Children were among the victims.

One grief-stricken mother told Hong Kong Cable Television that her 17-year-old son, who died in the incident, was an only child. He was always well-behaved, she says, and he wanted to go to university.

And a school boy told Hong Kong reporters from his hospital bed that he was poisoned after eating a fried dough stick and rice. He says all 30 of his classmates also became ill after eating food from the snack shop.

Reports said the victims were mostly students from four middle schools located near the snack shop, as well as migrant construction workers.

Hong Kong media have reported that the students went into shock after taking only a couple of bites of food, began spitting out mucus and blood, and then fell unconscious. Witnesses were quoted as saying that hundreds of victims were rushed to the hospital.

Police have reportedly detained the owner of the snack shop, which sold sesame cakes and fried dough sticks. Communist Party headquarters in Beijing sent investigators and ordered local officials to do everything possible to save those who were hurt by the poison - an indication of how seriously the central government views the matter.

But one man, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity, said that late on Saturday, China's propaganda department ordered all Chinese websites to stop releasing news about the poisoning.

China routinely suppresses information about events that may embarrass the country. Security across the country has been tightened ahead of the Communist Party congress in November, at which senior leaders are expected to retire. Guidelines have been issued to the Chinese news media to protect the Party's image.