Soldiers in desperate search for Sri Lanka landslide victims

KOSLANDA, Sri Lanka- Soldiers using heavy diggers stepped up their desperate search Thursday for victims of a landslide in central Sri Lanka, feared to have buried alive 100 people on a picturesque tea plantation.

Hundreds of troops were clawing through tonnes of mud that buried tin-roofed homes at the plantation on Wednesday, and reinforcements have been deployed, but there was little hope of finding survivors.

“We are also bringing in an additional 200 troops to add to the 500 already here to carry out the search,” the region’s top military officer, Major General Mano Perera, told reporters.

Rescue efforts were being hampered by persistent monsoon rains, blamed for the initial mudslide, that have also made the surrounding hills unstable, he said.

“There were no concrete structures which could have acted as air traps for victims to survive,” he added.

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.

Top officials have warned the chances of finding survivors are slim, while a government minister voiced fears the death toll could hit 100.

“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 to be at work or in schools.