Authorities in the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin have arrested 12 people for "abuse of power" and "dereliction of duty" in connection with massive and fatal explosions at a hazardous chemicals warehouse that left at least 145 dead earlier this month.
China's ministry of public security in Beijing confirmed that police have formally arrested Yu Xuewei, chairman of Tianjin International Ruihai Logistics Co., which owns the ill-fated warehouse and the company's vice-chairman Dong Shexuan.
Zeng Fanqiang, "an employee with a safety evaluation firm suspected of illegally helping Ruihai acquire safety evaluation papers," was also named among the 12, the official Xinhua news agency quoted the ministry as saying.
All detainees are suspected of illegally storing dangerous materials, and Ruihai Logistics' general manager Zhi Feng and his deputy Shang Qingsen are under "residential surveillance," it said.
The move means a trial is now highly likely.
The ministry said it blames local government departments, including transportation management authorities, production safety regulatory agencies, and land and resources authorities, for the blasts, which devastated buildings up to three kilometers away and sent huge fireballs, followed by clouds of toxic cyanide gas belching into the air.
"Customs personnel of the Tianjin Customs District were found to have been slack and irresponsible in supervising the illegal dangerous chemical business run by Ruihai," the ministry said.
"The personnel involved are also suspected of illegally issuing customs clearing permits to the company and allowing it to carry out illegal business activities," it said.
Meanwhile, Tianjin Port had failed to respond to the potential safety risks and to the "illegal business" being carried out at Ruihai, the statement said.
China's propaganda ministry has ordered official media and news websites not to carry out any independent reporting into the Tianjin disaster, or its causes.
Some 700 tons of sodium cyanide was stored at the warehouse, which was destroyed when the blasts ripped through the area late on Aug. 12 as firefighters struggled to bring a blaze under control, leaving the surrounding area an ashen wasteland.
Transportation official investigated
Meanwhile, China's state prosecution service said it is investigating senior transportation ministry official Wang Jinwen for suspected abuse of power, as well as city transportation chief Wu Dai, and Zheng Qingyue, president of Tianjin Port (Group) Co., official media reported on Thursday.
"Wang violated the law to help Tianjin Ruihai International Logistics Co. Ltd., owner of the warehouse that was the site of the blasts and allegedly handled dangerous chemicals, pass safety evaluations and obtain approvals to handle hazardous materials," Xinhua quoted the Supreme People's Procuratorate as saying.
Eleven officials have been placed under compulsive measures, which include summons by force, bail, residential surveillance, detention and arrest, it said.
China has dispatched chemical defense troops and experts to the scene of the blasts, which also left 28 people still unaccounted for and 474 still in hospital, according to social media posts by Tianjin government departments.
China has an appalling industrial safety record, which activists say is due to close ties between businesses and corrupt government officials who turn a blind eye to infractions.
A Tianjin resident surnamed Ma said he hoped the disaster would lead to more oversight and the pursuit of corrupt officials.
"What is being investigated now is what's on the surface," Ma said.
"We don't know how far they are really getting into the details."
"They should take it all the way ... This was the product of corruption. Such a huge disaster couldn't have happened if they weren't corrupt," he said.
Chemical factory blast in Wuhan
The arrests were announced as residents of the central city of Wuhan told RFA their neighborhood was hit by another blast at a chemical factory on Wednesday.
"A fire started in a building behind our company, and then something blew up," an employee surnamed Zhang who works at an electronics factory in the Canglongdao Industrial Development Park in Wuhan's Jiangxia district told RFA. "All of the glass in our building was shattered."
"Nobody has gone to work in the two buildings next door today," Zhang added.
A Jiangxia resident surnamed Zheng called on the authorities to investigate following reports that four people died and one person was left critically injured.
"I think this is up to the government, and that oversight is definitely needed," Zheng said. "It should be within the government's power to sort out problems like this."
An official who answered the phone at the Jiangxia district government offices didn't deny the incident had taken place.
"I'm not at the scene, so I don't know what is happening there," the official said. "You should go to the scene and find out; we don't give interviews on the phone."
An employee who answered the phone at the Shenzhen Eagle Industrial Co., which owns the building where the fire broke out, declined to comment.
"Sorry, we don't know about that here," the employee said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to and Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.