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China Reports School Death Toll in 2008 Quake

After a year of obfuscation, the authorities on Thursday released the first official tally of student deaths from the earthquake last May, saying that 5,335 children either were dead or remained missing. An additional 546 were left disabled, they said.

Previous estimates placed the number of students who died in the collapse of school buildings during the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan province as high as 10,000.

The issue of student deaths remains a contentious one here. The parents of children who perished in the rubble of classrooms say the buildings were poorly constructed; the government has largely quashed the issue by harassing or detaining those who insist on pushing the matter.

With the first anniversary of the quake fast approaching, the government has stepped up its campaign to silence those who have been calling for a full accounting of why so many schools failed while adjacent structures remained undamaged. In recent days, several parents whose children died — and who have refused to stay quiet — said they had been placed under heightened surveillance, and some foreign journalists who have tried to interview grieving parents have been detained.

The newly released numbers did little to quell critics. Ai Weiwei, an artist who is one of China’s best-known gadflies, said the figures were “meaningless” because they lacked specifics, like names, ages and places of death.

Government officials say that 68,712 people died during the earthquake. An additional 17,921 are listed as missing but are presumed to be dead. According to the official media, 7,000 classrooms and dormitory rooms collapsed during the quake.

Wildfire Is Out of Control on Hills By Santa Barbara

A wildfire on the hills near this oceanside city continued to burn out of control on Thursday, and firefighters struggled to pen in the flames. Although faltering winds slowed the fire’s spread through the day, officials worried that the blaze could worsen as the humidity dropped, temperatures rose and the evening winds returned.

“Firefighters have been building lines in pieces around the perimeter,” said Mike Carr, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “Now they are working to connect the dots.”

About two dozen homes and 1,300 acres have burned in the fire, and 13,500 people have been evacuated in the area, which is known for its sprawling mansions and ocean views. A mandatory evacuation order was in effect for about seven square miles ranging from the Santa Ynez foothills to just outside downtown Santa Barbara, the police said. Hotels in the area were near capacity with families unable to return to their homes. Carr said strong winds expected Thursday evening could threaten 3,500 homes and 100 businesses in the area.

At a news conference on Thursday in Santa Barbara, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the state’s budget woes would not affect efforts to fight the fire, though the blaze presented a “great challenge.”

“Seventy-five percent of the response cost” would be covered by the federal government, he said, after his declaration of a state of emergency on Wednesday.

“This is very, very helpful for us,” the governor said, “because, as you know, we have a financial crisis in California. But I want to reassure you all that even though we have this crisis, we will not be short of money when it comes to fighting this fire.”

More than 9,000 elementary and high school students were evacuated from schools in the county on Thursday, said Barbara Keyani, a spokeswoman for Santa Barbara’s two largest school districts. She said 12 schools remained closed.

Ten firefighters have been injured, officials said, although most of the injuries were minor.

Elite Unit’s Problems Pose Test for Attorney General

A week after shutting down the criminal case against former Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska because it had been botched by prosecutors, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. delivered a pep talk to Justice Department lawyers.

“I’m here to tell you personally that I’ve got your back,” Holder told prosecutors in the department’s Public Integrity Section, an elite unit charged with pursuing corruption charges against public officials. He called them “among the finest lawyers in the entire government,” promised them more resources and vowed not to back off from “prosecuting the tough cases when warranted because of the criticism we’re getting right now.”

Despite Holder’s gesture of reassurance last month, recalled by someone present at Holder’s speech, the public integrity unit is badly in need of rehabilitation, according to current and former officials. Holder worked in the section two decades ago.

“Holder faces calls for more autonomy and freedom from political influence on one hand — consider the torture memo and the U.S. attorney firings — and demands for more supervision and training on the other — consider the public integrity unit,” said Daniel Richman, a Columbia University law professor and former federal prosecutor.

The Public Integrity Section has scored some successes in recent years, most notably a string of convictions connected to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

Less visibly, though, a decision by the Bush administration eight years ago to shake up the section has had some troubling consequences, like frequent leadership changes and the loss of experienced prosecutors, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former officials. Against that backdrop, court records show that the Stevens case has not been the only one in which the unit may have failed to disclose evidence favorable to the defense, as required by law.