Tags: SriLanka | disaster | landslide

Soldiers in Desperate Search for Sri Lanka Landslide Victims

Thursday, 30 October 2014 07:53 AM

Sri Lankan soldiers stepped up their search Thursday for 100 people feared buried alive in a landslide at a tea plantation, but there was little hope of finding any survivors.

Hundreds of troops using heavy diggers clawed through tonnes of mud that buried scores of tin-roofed homes at the picturesque plantation in the island's centre on Wednesday.

"Rains are slowing down our work," the region's top military officer, Major General Mano Perera, told reporters as he directed search operations.

"The area is flooded with muddy water, so we don't hold out much hope of finding survivors," Perera said, explaining that "there were no concrete structures which could have acted as air traps for victims to survive".

Shop keeper Vevaratnam Marathamuttu said he ran when tonnes of earth came crashing down the hill on Wednesday morning, fearing there had been an explosion.

"I thought it was some sort of a bomb blast and fled from my shop," Marathamuttu said. "I saved my life because I ran away."

Truck driver Sinniah Yogarajan, 48, said there was "no point in my living" after five members of his family along with his friends were buried in the disaster.

"The entire neighbourhood has vanished. Now there is a river of mud where our houses once stood," Yogarajan told AFP at a nearby school where survivors were sheltering.

"The soldiers are trying their best but every time they scoop out some of the mud the hole then just gets filled up again with more mud," he said.

A government minister voiced fears that 100 people may have been buried, although officials said that so far only a handful of bodies have been found.

"What I gathered is that about 100 people have been buried alive," Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera told AFP after visiting the site on Wednesday afternoon.

There had been fears of an even higher toll when officials initially said that up to 300 people were unaccounted for, but the minister said most of those who were classified as missing were later found at work.

Some 75 children were already at their school nearby when their homes were buried, officials said.

President Mahinda Rajapakse visited the disaster area in Koslanda on Thursday, speaking with survivors now sheltering at two schools. He later inspected the Meeriyabedda tea plantation which bore the full brunt of the mudslide.

Soldiers were seen clearing debris from the mud, as curious onlookers as well as survivors whose relatives were missing gathered at the site despite appeals to stay away.

Labourer Arumugam Thyagarajah, 28, said his six-year-old daughter was washed away in the mudslide as she walked with her older brother to school.

At least 1,200 people from nearby tea plantations have also been evacuated from their homes amid fears that ongoing rains could lead to more mudslides, officials said.

Sri Lanka's picturesque hill region is famed for producing Ceylon tea and has become a major tourist attraction with visitors able to stay on the plantations.

The number of homes destroyed was revised down to 63 on Thursday from 150 given earlier by the national Disaster Management Centre (DMC).

"We had difficulty communicating with our officers and sometimes rumours were reported to us as facts," the Colombo-based DMC spokesman Sarath Kumara told AFP.

An office where village records were maintained was also destroyed in the disaster, causing problems for the authorities in compiling reliable casualty figures.

If the official number of dead does hit 100, the disaster would be the worst since the Asian tsunami in December 2004 when 31,000 people died on the island.

Sri Lanka, a tropical island at the foot of India, is prone to weather-related disasters -- especially during the monsoon season when the rains are often welcomed by farmers.

Thirteen people were killed in mudslides in and around Colombo in June.

Cyclonic winds that accompanied the monsoon in June last year killed 54 people, mostly fishermen.


© AFP 2018

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Thursday, 30 October 2014 07:53 AM
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