Hundreds feared dead as landslides engulf Philippines

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The Independent Online

More than 200 people were feared dead last night after a series of landslides struck the Philippines over the weekend, engulfing entire villages when most residents were asleep.

Last night the death toll stood at 99, with 123 missing.

Rescuers dug up whole families buried under mud, debris and uprooted coconut trees that swept down mountains after days of heavy rains. In one house, a woman's body was discovered, arms still clasped around her dead children.

Dionisio Coloma, senior police officer in Liloan, on Leyte island, central Philippines said "People are helping to dig up their own neighbours ... The mountain just came down on them."

Emergency workers were hampered by heavy rain and fallen power lines yesterday as they searched for survivors on Leyte, the area worst hit, and on Mindanao island, in the south. Rosette Lerias, the Governor of southern Leyte province said: "We really have no idea of the magnitude of the disaster."

In some villages, only rooftops were visible, as villagers, many using their bare hands, searched for friends and relatives.

Ms Lerias visited Punta, a village near the coastal town of San Francisco, and said more than half the 83 houses were either destroyed or submerged in mud. She said that Punta, home to 360 people, was "a very, very depressing sight". "There's debris, wood, old clothes, kitchen utensils strewn all around. The rescuers were using heavy equipment, and they dug up the hand of a child," she said.

Ms Lerias said an 89-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl dug up alive appeared to have survived in an air pocket.

So far 49 bodies have been recovered in Punta, including those of a group who sought refuge some distance from the mountain. The tragedy followed six days of strong rain and winds, which triggered floods, landslides and tornadoes across six provinces.

Some Filipinos blamed years of illegal logging, which has denuded mountains and loosened the soil. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said most of the affected areas were close to over-logged hills and mountainsides.

Ms Lerias said her boat was forced to turn back after encountering huge waves while approaching the village of San Ricardo. At least three villages on Leyte were inaccessible. Soldiers, police and volunteers joined the rescue effort, while military helicopters awaited better weather. High winds forced back two helicopters that tried to fly to devastated villages yesterday, according to Melchor Rosales, executive director of the National Disaster Coordination Centre.

President Arroyo said the US was sending all-weather Chinook helicopters from its bases in Okinawa, Japan. She abandoned a plan to travel to Leyte, about 400 miles south-east of Manila, after being told it was too dangerous.

Television footage showed a man covered in mud trying desperately to dig a body out with a crowbar, while his companion tried to pull out the corpse with his hands. In a rural mortuary, wooden coffins bearing pieces of paper scrawled with the names of the dead lay side by side. In Liloan, a woman wept as she used a garden hose to wash the mud-spattered body of her son. Survivors said they heard "a great noise" from the mountains shortly before the current of mud swept over their villages.