Departing from China's previous denials, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji acknowledged Thursday that students in a rural school that exploded last week had been forced to manufacture firecrackers.
In a rare act of contrition broadcast live to the nation, he apologized to the Chinese people for failing to protect the 42 children and adults killed in the blast.
"I feel very sad and I carry a heavy heart," Zhu said, lowering his head and speaking in a hushed voice. "I want to apologize and reflect on my own work."
The blast at the Fanglin elementary school in the mountains of Jiangxi province in central China killed at least 38 children and four adults. Parents said students were inserting fuses into firecrackers at the time, and accused local officials of ignoring complaints that the school was forcing children to work.
Two days after the explosion, Zhu denied children were making firecrackers and blamed the explosion on a suicidal villager armed with explosives. Local newspapers that had been reporting otherwise quickly adopted the line.
Zhu said Thursday a six-member team dispatched by the Public Security Ministry had confirmed that children were forced to manufacture fireworks at the school in 1999 as part of what he called a "work-study program." But he said production was stopped after a fireworks factory explosion in a nearby village last year that killed 35 people.
Zhu stood by the government's earlier statement that the school in Jiangxi province was blown up on March 6 by a lone madman nicknamed "Psycho." Yet he left room for that verdict to change.
"History can never be covered up," he said. "The investigation will continue until we really get the full picture."
Although short of a complete reversal, Zhu's statements underscored the power of China's increasingly independent news media and the government's growing inability to control information in a society with access to the Internet.
China has covered up disasters involving tens of thousands of deaths in the past, but news of the explosion and the children making fireworks spread quickly on Internet sites and through local newspapers. When the government issued its official account, many Chinese viewed it with skepticism and even scorn.
The school blast was an embarrassment to the government not only because of the child labor allegations but because it appeared to be the latest in a string of deadly industrial accidents that Beijing had vowed to curb.
CHINA SAYS BUSH WILL VISIT: Separately, Zhu announced Thursday that President Bush will visit Beijing in October.
Zhu said Bush would visit the Chinese capital after attending a yearly meeting of Asian-Pacific leaders, which will be in Shanghai this year.
"I am very pleased because the visit to China by President Bush will provide an excellent opportunity for the two countries to communicate better," Zhu said.
In Washington, National Security Council spokeswoman Mary Ellen Countryman said it was likely that Bush would travel to Shanghai for the meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
"The president was very pleased to receive an invitation to travel to Beijing," she said. "We're looking to see whether we can do that."