China on Monday began withdrawing the first batch of 40,000 troops from three provinces hit by the massive May 12 earthquake, as authorities shift their focus away from rescue and toward reconstruction work.
The first group of soldiers, about 500 paratroopers, left the Sichuan capital of Chengdu by train Monday morning, the official Xinhua News Agency said. No time frame was given for when the troop pullout will be complete.
Departing soldiers autographed local children's t-shirts and crowds in Sichuan's Qingchuan county and Shifang city lined the road to wave at passing military convoys, according to Xinhua. Some people held up handwritten cardboard signs thanking the soldiers.
China mobilized about 130,000 troops and armed police to help with quake relief and post-quake reconstruction in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi following the 7.9-magnitude temblor.
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Disasters always pose a test for the communist government, whose mandate rests heavily on maintaining order, delivering economic growth, and providing relief in emergencies.
The quick deployment reflected China's emphasis on its ability to deliver efficient relief as well as its desire to show the world it stands ready for anything that may come during the Olympics in August.
The troops began pouring into the quake zone almost immediately – their numbers already in the tens of thousands within 24 hours of the disaster. Their efforts ranged from rescuing survivors and shoring up weakened dams that threatened to flood thousands downriver to clearing rubble and beginning the process of reconstruction.
In the two months since the quake, some soldiers, along with migrant workers, have been reconstructing communities and building camps of prefabricated housing for the displaced.
The remaining troops will continue their work repairing roads, cleaning up and preventing epidemics, Xinhua quoted Chen Bingde, chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army, as saying.
The military is also helping to relocate quake survivors and transport relief supplies, the report said.
The quake destroyed a massive swath of Sichuan and the two neighboring provinces, leaving 70,000 dead and another 18,000 missing. An estimated 5 million people were left homeless.
The troops and armed forces as of July 18 had repaired more than 9,196 miles of roads, installed 220,000 shelters and relocated more than 1.4 million people, Xinhua said.
They had delivered 7,474 tons of relief supplies to the quake zone, it said.