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Sri Lanka: hundreds of families missing after landslide buries three villages

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May 18, 2016: Rescuers in Sri Lanka have started the grim task of looking for more than 200 families missing following a massive landslide in remote Aranayake area, on the slopes of the Central Hills.

The Sri Lankan Red Cross said that the landslide, which struck during the night on 17 May, buried three villages – Siripura, Pallebage and Elagipitya – following heavy rains over the last three days.

Red Cross officials said that they suspected that at least 220 families were missing going by government population records. However, government officials were reluctant to confirm the figure.

“I can only tell you that we have recovered 15 bodies from two locations,” Pradeep Kodippili spokesperson for the Disaster Management Center said. In total, 27 people had died across the country due to the severe weather and flooding, officials said.

Red Cross officials said that rescued operations had been hampered because reaching the mountainous area, some 140km from the capital Colombo, was treacherous.

“Rescuers would have to get there by foot and start digging with their hands before we can get any heavy equipment in to the site,” Mahieash Johnney, senior manager of communications at the Red Cross said.

The area had received over 100mm of rain between 15 and 16 May and at least two nearby villages had been evacuated due to fears of a fresh landslide on Monday and Tuesday, Red Cross officials said.

Torrential rains across Sri Lanka have forced more than 137,000 people from their homes and killed at least 11.

Rohan Dias, a deputy police inspector, said it was not known how many people had survived the landslide.

“There are about 800 people gathered in the nearby temples including the people from the neighbouring villages fearing their villages could also be affected. There are another 400 people in the roads who have come to see their relatives.”

WM Abeywickrema, Kegalle district secretary, told a local private channel that around 400 people had been rescued so far.

“I saw a whole rock came down and buried many houses. There are people inside,” one middle-aged woman told the channel.

The Disaster Management Centre (DMC) said dozens of houses were destroyed when mountain slopes collapsed, forcing hundreds of villagers to evacuate.

Military Spokesman Jayanath Jayaweera said 174 service personnel and eight army officers had been deployed to the rescue area in Aranayaka in Kegalle district, north-east of Colombo.

Troops also launched rescue operations in inundated areas of the Indian Ocean island, with boats and helicopters pulling more than 200 people trapped in the northwestern coastal district of Puttalam to safety, officials said.

“This is the worst torrential rain we have seen since 2010,” said Pradeep Kodippili, a spokesman for the disaster management centre. Nineteen of Sri Lanka’s 25 districts have been hit.

Heavy rains also struck the neighbouring Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. More than 100 houses were damaged in coastal Kerala and about 50 families had been shifted to a relief camp in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, a state official said.

The weather department forecast heavy rains across Tamil Nadu over the next two days and warned fishermen not to go out to sea.

Flooded roads and fallen trees led to traffic jams in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. Trains were halted as water submerged railway tracks, officials said.

Flooding and drought are cyclical in Sri Lanka, which is battered by a southern monsoon between May and September, while a northeastern monsoon runs from December to February.