DUJIANGYAN, China - Angry parents whose children were killed in an earthquake-stricken school shouted "Oh, my child!" and "Tell us something!" when police forcefully removed them yesterday from a protest outside a courthouse.
The police action was the clearest signal yet that authorities are hardening their stance against the impromptu displays of public anger over the May 12 earthquake that collapsed schools and killed thousands of children.
The students' deaths have become the focus for Chinese, both inside and outside the quake zone, fueling accusations about corruption in school construction. The brewing public anger has become a political challenge and threatens to turn popular sentiment against the authoritarian government as it copes with aiding millions displaced by the disaster.
Aggrieved parents and even rescuers have pointed to steel rods in broken concrete slabs that were thinner than a ball point pen among the 7,000 classrooms that were destroyed.
"Oh, my child!" one woman wailed as officers took the arms of the parents gathered outside the courthouse in this resort town. "Tell us something!" other parents shouted as they were led away. Their children had died in the Juyuan Middle School.
Journalists were then dragged up the courthouse steps by police - "For your safety!" they shouted. The journalists included an Associated Press reporter and two photographers who were held inside and questioned for a half-hour before being let go, after the protesters had been moved away.
The parents were forced along the sidewalk and out of sight. Surrounded by police at a side entrance to the courthouse, they tried to present what some described as a lawsuit, saying they had no other option because local officials weren't responding.
The papers were refused, the parents said. Calls to local police were not answered.
"This wasn't a riot!" Zao Ming, an official from the foreign affairs office of the local government, said after the protest. "These people were just disrupting society. . . . The government will solve their problems."
The government has taken some steps to try to help grieving parents. Yesterday, Beijing began giving compensation to some families whose children were killed - about $144 per year to each parent who lost an only child. The Ministry of Civil Affairs also announced that parents who had lost their only child had first priority in adopting children orphaned by the disaster.
Meanwhile, the death toll from the quake rose yesterday to 69,107 and relief efforts continued in the sprawling disaster zone. Thousands of soldiers searched for a military helicopter that crashed Saturday near the epicenter, with 14 injured quake victims and a crew of five aboard.
Authorities also monitored the climbing water levels in a huge lake formed when a quake-triggered landslide blocked a river, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.
Suspicions between the government and grieving parents have grown since the quake. Plainclothes police roamed the grounds of the collapsed Xinjian - or New Construction - Elementary School in Dujiangyan during a memorial for International Children's Day on June 1, a parent said.
They whispered into parents' ears, "Be careful what you say among the foreign media," said Yang, a father at the event who only gave his surname.
Parents at the school said they scuffled with police yesterday, after the authorities tried to block reporters from doing interviews.
"The police twisted the hands of some of the parents. It's too much!" said Chen Bijun, who lost her 12-year-old son in the collapse.
Parents arriving at the site yesterday found that authorities had removed their symbols of mourning and protest, replacing them with a single banner that said "Mourn the students who met grief." The parents immediately tore it down.
Both incidents happened while Chinese leader Li Changchun, the country's fifth-ranked official, was touring other parts of the city, visiting survivors and relief workers, Xinhua said.
China's government had been generally praised for its response to the earthquake, including the freedoms allowed both to foreign and domestic media.
The Juyuan Middle School was sealed off with police tape yesterday. "People can't come in, for their safety," a policeman at the site said.