More than 100 missing after huge landslides in Sri Lanka
Soldiers and police used sticks and bare hands yesterday to dig through enormous piles of mud covering houses in three villages hit by massive landslides in central Sri Lanka, with scores of people reported as missing.
By evening, rescuers had pulled 17 bodies from the mud and debris unleashed by several days of heavy rain across the island nation.
The army said that 134 people remained missing after mudslides struck three villages in the central Kegalle district.
The Sri Lankan Red Cross had tweeted that it feared more than 200 families were buried in the mud, but the organisation later said reports indicated that many of the missing people had made it to relief camps.
Heavy fog, rain, electrical outages and the loose ground were complicating efforts to search for survivors. As night fell, the rescue operation was suspended until dawn. Officials warned that, with rain still falling, more landslides could occur in the area.
Villagers said torrents of muddy water, tree branches and debris came crashing down around their homes on Tuesday in the three villages, located at different heights on the same hill in Kegalle District, about 72km (45 miles) north of the capital, Colombo.
"I heard a huge sound like a plane crashing into the Earth," said 52-year-old AG Kamala, who had just returned to her house in one of the villages, Siripura, when the landslides hit. "I opened my door. I could not believe my eyes, as I saw something like a huge fireball rolling down the mountain."
Near the village of Elangapitiya - furthest down the hill - soldiers carried bodies to a school, where families waited for news of missing loved ones.
Farmer Hewapelige Lal said he had identified the body of his nephew, but that 18 other family members were possibly buried under the mud. He and his wife had left their home to take fruit to a daughter who lived elsewhere, but at some point his wife turned back.
"That was the last time I saw her," Mr Lal said, sobbing.
When he heard of the landslide, he rushed home but found the area covered with thick, heavy mud. "All I could do was scream."
Officials could not give the populations of the villages of Siripura, Elangapitiya or Pallebage, but such villages typically include 1,000-1,500 residents.
In Elangapitiya alone, where 14 bodies were recovered yesterday, about 130 people were still missing, according to Major General Sudantha Ranasinghe, who was coordinating rescue efforts.
Hundreds of stunned villagers took shelter in four temporary camps set up in schools and a Buddhist temple, where they were being given food, blankets and basic medical treatment.
Local media said President Maithripala Sirisena visited the disaster sites earlier yesterday.