Philippines mudslide leaves 1,500 feared dead in buried village

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More than 1,500 people are feared dead in the Philippines after a catastrophic mudslide buried a village. Reports said the mud submerging the community of Guinsaugon was 10 metres deep in places.

The primary school was packed with children. It has vanished. More than 500 houses were buried. Television showed just a few pieces of metal roofing poking through the mud.

Relief efforts had to be called off as fresh mudslides brought boulders crashing down the mountain that overlooks Guinsaugon, in the southern part of the island of Leyte. Rescuers had worked all day, digging in chest-deep mud.

The official death toll last night was 53. But 1,860 people lived in Guinsaugon and only 36 survivors were found. Fifteen bodies were recovered from the mud. The rest are missing.

Among them were about 100 visitors who were in the village for a women's group meeting. Rescue workers could not get close to the school because the mud was so deep and unstable.

The governor, Rosette Lerias, broke down as she described the scene on television. "I don't see any homes. I don't see any buildings. It's just mud," she said. "Oh God, this is truly tragic." President Gloria Arroyo told survivors last night: "Help is on the way. You will soon be out of harm's way."

The mudslide struck without warning just before 10am local time (2am GMT) yesterday. "It sounded like the mountain exploded, and the whole thing crumbled," a survivor, Dario Libatan, said. "I could not see any house standing anymore."

Another survivor, Didita Kamarenta, said: "I felt the earth shake and a strong gust of wind, then I felt mud at my feet. All the children, including my two children, are lost. They may have been buried."

Governor Lerias called for volunteers to help dig by hand, saying the mud was too unstable to use heavy equipment. "I have a glimmer of hope, based on the rule of thumb that within 24 hours you can still find survivors," she said. "After that, you move on to the recovery phase, but right now it's still rescue mode."

But hopes for finding more survivors are bleak. "We did not find injured people," Ricky Estela, a crewman on a helicopter that flew a politician to the scene, said. "Most of them are dead, beneath the mud."

A large part of the mountain, Mt Guinsaugon, has collapsed. Experts said the mudslide was probably caused by two weeks of exceptionally heavy rainfall.

There had been a small earthquake in the area earlier in the day, but seismologists said they did not believe it was strong enough to cause the mudslide.

Some people angrily blamed illegal logging for destabilising the area. The local MP, Roger Mercado, said it was the result of logging and mining 30 years ago, but local residents had ignored warnings to leave.

"They would not evacuate," he said. "This is the effect of the logging before. Every time it rains, there are flash floods." Many of the village's residents did leave the area last week, but most had returned home after the rains eased.

Rene Solidum, director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, said: "The area could have really been ready for a landslide because of the rain."

The United States said a Navy vessel, in the area for annual military exercises, was on its way to help.