Fears grow for 700 villagers trapped by mudslides

Rescuers were working frantically yesterday to airlift villagers from remote communities in Southern Taiwan amid growing fears for the lives of more than 700 people trapped by enormous mudslides after Typhoon Morakot ravaged the island.

Aerial photographs of the village of Shiao Lin in Kaohsiung county showed a village lost beneath mud, rocks and water. Only palm trees stood above the deluge. Shiao Lin remains cut off after a bridge 12km away was washed away.

Leng Chia-yu, a spokesman for Taiwan's disaster response agency, said there had been 150 buildings in Shiao Lin, but only one or two remained.

One survivor, Lin Mei-ying, told the Taiwanese TV station ETTV: "There are still a lot of people trapped inside. Please go faster, so they can be saved."

The bad weather has made going faster difficult. It was still raining heavily yesterday and army helicopters had to fly through dense fog to get to Shiao Lin. Soldiers had to jump off the aircraft as they were unable to land.

Many of the survivors had spent four days huddled at the entrance to a tunnel, above a broad expanse of water. The flooding had eased late last night and aircraft were able to drop off soldiers to look for survivors, but rescue work remains risky. One helicopter crashed into a mountain as it attempted to drop food and supplies to Pingdong on the south of the island.

The typhoon has brought the worst flooding in 50 years to Taiwan. The official death toll stands at 62, with 35 injured and 57 missing, but the final toll could be worse as the preliminary figure does not include Shiao Lin.

Some of those found dead had been swept away in their cars by the force of the typhoon and a survivor was swept along for nearly 2km by the mudslide but grabbed a log to stay afloat.

One woman fled with her husband and their baby from their two-storey home in Shiao Lin minutes before the mudslide buried it. "We heard two loud bangs ... the sky was filled with dust like a volcanic eruption and flood waters, mud and rocks streamed on to the roads," she told the China Times.

The Taiwanese President, Ma Ying-jeou, sought to rally the people, despite anger in the media about a lack of preparedness. "We should place special attention on the reconstruction and make sure we raise our standards so that such a matter will not happen again," he said in a statement.

Across the Strait of Taiwan, China had evacuated 1.5 million people before Morakot, the ninth typhoon of the Pacific cyclone season, reached its eastern coast two days ago. Yesterday afternoon, Morakot had moved into the Yellow Sea and the threat it poses to the region is expected to lessen.