Taiwan races to save hundreds of typhoon survivors

Hundreds of villagers fled their homes minutes before a flood-created lake burst today, while Taiwan's military airlifted more survivors from remote villages devastated in mudslides during last weekend's typhoon.

The military sent 4,000 new troops to join another 16,000 soldiers already working to save thousands of survivors stranded in several villages in the island's south, the Defense Ministry said.

Rescue efforts have been slow because many bridges and roads to hard-hit villages collapsed or were washed away, and public complaints about the pace of rescue efforts were rising.

Interior Minister Liao Liao-yi said rescue work speeded up Wednesday when troops on foot reached the cutoff villages with food and other relief materials, backing up the airlift efforts.

Typhoon Morakot dumped more than 80 inches (2 meters) of rain and unleashed the worst floods the island has seen in 50 years.

The official death toll in Taiwan stands at 108, with 61 listed as missing. But several hundred more — no one is sure how many — remain unaccounted for and are feared lost in the mudslides. The storm also killed 22 people in the Philippines and eight in China.

Kaohsiung official Yang Chiu-hsing said 300 villagers were rescued in the most devastated mountain region in the southern county Thursday, bringing the total of those ferried to safety to 1,200.

In the southern Taiwan township of Toayuan, 500 villagers were told to run to higher ground about 30 minutes before a lake created by floodwaters and landslides burst its banks, an official said, adding that two nearby lakes were expected to burst soon.

"There would be a massive amount of water flowing down the Laonung River, and we have alerted villagers around to flee," relief official Hsu Chin-biao said.

In the southern town of Liukuei, scores of private relief vehicles were held up along a narrow, muddy mountain road, waiting for permission to move toward the center of the heavy flooding that devastated a series of isolated villages.

Relief efforts by a number of Buddhist organizations complement the military's work to pluck hundreds of villagers from the affected area.

The military has reported it has traced some 1,000 villagers from the worst-hit village of Shiao Lin and two other stricken communities in the past two days. So far, at least 300 have been airlifted to safety, said spokesman for relief operations Col. Chang Kuo-bin.

Villagers complained about the slow rescue and cleanup work when President Ma Ying-jeou and other leaders inspected the relief operation this week.

The mass circulation Apple Daily accused Ma of responding slowly to the disaster, saying "He ... failed to order the military to commit itself to relief efforts right away, and that made him an incompetent commander in chief."

News reports said many villagers used their bare hands in the days after the mudslides to try to dig down to their buried homes in futile efforts to save their relatives.

Others sought to send messages for help.

Yesterday, a wooden sign was seen being erected near a collapsed bridge in Hsinfa village in Kaohsiung saying "32 Buried SOS." Rescuers rushed to the scene and tossed ropes over the river to pull several survivors to safety, according to news reports.