COLOMBO (AFP) – Mudslides triggered by monsoon rains swept through a tea-growing region of Sri Lanka on Wednesday, killing at least 16 people and leaving around 300 more feared missing, disaster officials said.
The landslides hit a well-known tea plantation east of Colombo in the morning, with some homes buried in 30 feet (nine metres) of mud, officials said.
Soldiers were trying to dig through debris for survivors, but rescue efforts were hampered by damage to roads in the area which blocked earth-moving and other heavy equipment from arriving.
“We have reports of 140 houses getting washed away in the mudslides,” Sarath Kumara, a spokesman for the national Disaster Management Centre, told AFP.
“The latest we have got is that at least 300 people may be missing,” the official said, updating an earlier estimate of 200.
Kumara said 16 bodies had been recovered by noon after the disaster in the Koslanda region, around 200 kilometres (125 miles) east of the capital.
The victims were tea plantation workers and their families, whose homes were located on a mountain slope that came crashing down.
The top military official in the area, Major General Mano Perera, said around 20 units have been deployed for the rescue operation in an unstable mountainous area. But he said efforts were being hampered by poor visibility, with the area shrouded in mist.
The landslide started at about 7.45am (0215 GMT) and lasted about 10 minutes, Perera said.
“Some houses have been buried in 30 feet (nine metres) of mud.”
Perera said the air force as well as elite police commandos had been deployed for the rescue, and that they were hopeful of finding survivors.
“We have already rescued some people and they have been sent to hospital,” he said, without giving exact figures.
The main focus of the search is the Meeriyabedda tea plantation, which lies close to a beauty spot famous for its waterfalls.
Kumara said the tragedy struck after schools opened and tea labourers were supposed to be at work, but bad weather may have prompted some to stay back.
“We are checking with nearby schools and other work places to establish how many villagers were (there) at the time,” Kumara said. “But our estimate at the moment is that about 300 people are missing.”
A local hospital source said two men and a woman rescued from the mud had been brought in for treatment.
Sections of several national highways have been washed away by the rains, slowing down the movement of search and rescue vehicles to the area, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) said.
The government’s disaster management minister said he was on his way to the area to assess the damage.
“We are coordinating with all agencies to ensure that relief is sent as quickly as possible, but the weather is a factor that is slowing us down,” the minister, Mahinda Amaraweera, told AFP.
The disaster struck in an area prone to mudslides and residents had been repeatedly warned to move to safer areas as monsoon rains lashed the region, the DMC said.
Thirteen people were killed in mudslides in and around Colombo in June.
The annual monsoon brings vital rains for irrigation and electricity generation but also causes frequent loss of life and damage to property.