Sri Lanka landslides: Hundreds feared dead as mud swamps villages

Heavy rains also caused extensive flooding

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The Independent Online

More than 200 people are missing and feared buried in Sri Lanka after torrential rains sent landslides cascading over three villages.

The country has also been hit by extensive flooding, causing around 135,000 people to be displaced. 

The Sri Lankan Red Cross said 220 families were missing because of the landslides. Sixteen bodies have already been recovered but around 180 people have been rescued from the enormous piles of mud and debris unleashed at around 5pm on Tuesday, according to military spokesman Brig. Jayanath Jayaweera. 

Search and rescue efforts are ongoing and more than 300 soldiers have been deployed to search for survivors in the villages of Siripura, Pallebage and Elagipitya in Kegalle District, about 72 kilometers (45 miles) north of Colombo, the capital, Brig. Jayaweera said. Rescue efforts were complicated by heavy fog, electricity outages and unstable ground. 

The president, Maithripala Sirisena, has visited the site and vowed to provide the support needed to find the missing families. 

"I heard a huge sound like a plane crashing into the earth," said one survivor, 52-year-old A.G. Kamala. She had just returned to her house in Siripura village when the landslides hit. "I opened my door. I could not believe my eyes, as I saw something like a huge fireball rolling down the mountain and again a huge sound."

Another witness, 70-year-old A.G. Alice, said all nine of her children were unaccounted for. She said the landslides hit with "a thundering sound I have never heard in my life". 

A man said his wife, mother-in-law, son and daughter-in-law were all in his house in Siripura when the landslides hit. "I still can't locate my family," M.W. Dharmadasa said. "I still don't know what happened to them." 

State broadcaster Rupavahini showed images of huge mounds of earth covering houses, while muddy torrents of water gushed from hilltops above. Villagers said 66 houses had been buried or damaged, according to local journalist Saman Bandara. 

Some 1,141 people who escaped the disaster were sheltering and being treated for minor injuries at a nearby school and a Buddhist temple, according to government official Mahendra Jagath. 

The same rains that unleashed the mudslides have also caused severe flooding in cities, including Colombo. Eleven deaths from electrocution and smaller landslides elsewhere have been reported in the past few days. 

The Meteorological Department has forecast more rain and rough seas for much of the country and warned more landslides could occur. 

Schools in many parts of the country were closed Wednesday due to the bad weather. Many schools are being used to provide shelter for the affected people. 

Mudslides are common in Sri Lanka during the monsoon season, with heavy deforestation to clear land for agriculture leaving the countryside exposed. 

During heavy rains in December 2014, Sri Lankan authorities evacuated more than 60,000 people from thousands of homes damaged or destroyed by floods or landslides. Two months before that, dozens of tea plantation workers were killed when mudslides buried their hillside homes.