Number of deaths from disease increase to 463 worldwide.

BEIJING – Frightened Chinese villagers attacked a government office where SARS patients were said to be quarantined, while Malaysia and Singapore took steps Monday to restore normal life amid growing confidence in their battle against the disease.

World Health Organization doctors, meanwhile, continued a rare visit to Taiwan, which does not have official ties with the U.N. agency. China – which still regards Taiwan as part of its territory with no right to United Nations participation – made an unusual about-face after first refusing access.

The number of worldwide SARS deaths rose to 463 on Monday as China reported nine new deaths, Hong Kong three and Taiwan two. Despite a drop in new cases in Hong Kong to just eight, the territory’s health director warned it was too early to claim victory over severe acute respiratory syndrome.

World Health Organization officials last week said the disease appeared to be on the decline everywhere but in mainland China, where the outbreak is believed to have started last winter.

The United States has managed to avoid any SARS deaths and health officials say the disease is not spreading within any U.S. community. There are only 54 probable U.S. cases; worldwide there are more than 6,500 cases.

In mainland China, which accounts for about 65 percent of the global cases, the government has banned most travel between provinces, and nervous villagers across the vast countryside have blockaded their communities to keep the virus at bay.

In Xiande, a town in China’s coastal Zhejiang province, several thousand villagers began protesting last weekend in front of a government building where suspected SARS patients were being quarantined, said a witness.

“They shouldn’t have hospitalized patients in the government building, which has no medical facilities and professional staff,” said the villager.

An officer in the Yuhuan County Public Security Bureau said two people who led the attack would be detained for five to seven days. Five others would be released later, said the policeman, who gave only his surname, Chen.

The witness said five villagers broke into the building Sunday night, shattering windows and breaking furniture, and three officials were injured when they tried to intervene.

Last week, a school east of Beijing was ransacked by villagers who heard the building would be used as a SARS ward.

Amid increasingly strict prevention measures, Beijing has sent police to keep people away from the Yongding River and 80 reservoirs around the capital to protect the drinking water supply, the Beijing Youth Daily reported.

On Monday, Singapore reopened its largest wholesale market 15 days after it was closed because of a SARS outbreak that sickened at least 12 people. About 2,000 employees at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Center returned to work from home quarantine.

Assessing the damage SARS has wreaked on tourism, Singapore’s tourism board said tourism was down 74 percent April 24-28 compared to last year.

In Malaysia, officials tried to calm fears among ethnic Chinese over the disease, which has sickened more than 6,300 people worldwide. Seven Malaysians have caught the disease and two have died, both of them members of the country’s ethnic Chinese minority.

“Go back to your normal lives,” Health Minister Chua Jui Meng told more than 500 Chinese community leaders. “You are more likely to get involved in a road accident than to get SARS.”

Fears had been “verging on panic within the Chinese community,” he told reporters later.

In Hong Kong, where there were fewer than 10 new cases for the second day in a row, Health Director Dr. Margaret Chan urged people to maintain good personal and environmental hygiene.

“This is perhaps the most critical period, and if we relax on these measures, all the hard work we’d put in place in the previous two months might go to waste,” she said at a news conference.

Australian officials estimated that the epidemic, paired with the war in Iraq, will cost its tourist industry $1.2 billion.

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