China work safety chief sacked as blasts death toll rises in Tianjin

BEIJING - The head of China's work safety watchdog has been sacked, state media said on Wednesday, two weeks after giant explosions in one of the country's largest ports killed 139 and injured hundreds.

Yang Dongliang, director and Communist Party chief of the State Administration of Work Safety, was fired for "suspected severe violation of discipline and the law", according to a one-line report from the official Xinhua news agency.

The phrase is generally used by the ruling party as a euphemism for corruption.

Yang was put under investigation less than a week after a series of explosions rocked a chemical storage facility in the northern port of Tianjin on Aug 12.

The death toll rose to 139 on Wednesday, with 34 still missing and more than 500 people in hospital, local officials announced on Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter.

It was not clear whether there was any direct connection between Yang's removal and the explosions.

But Yang, 61, worked in the city for 18 years and rose to be one of its vice mayors before taking office at the work safety agency in 2012.

Industrial accidents are common in China, with corruption thought to be a key factor behind lax enforcement of safety regulations.

State media said one of the owners of the company which ran the chemical facility was related to a former high ranking city police officer.

The incident sparked widespread outrage over alleged government collusion with the firm, and fears of pollutants contaminating the air and water of the city, which is home to about 15 million people.

The State Council, or cabinet, has vowed to conduct a "rigorous" investigation into the cause of the explosions.