Taiwan struggles to save 1,900 villagers

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Taiwanese relief workers struggled to rescue 1,900 villagers still stranded today nearly a week after a devastating typhoon, and disaster officials said as many as 400 people may have been buried in mudslides in the worst-hit village.

Shiao Lin village was nearly wiped out when Typhoon Morakot unleashed deadly landslides in the southern mountainous region last weekend. The storm unleashed the worst floods Taiwan has seen in 50 years.

Authorities have given up hope for those buried under tons of mud in Shiao Lin, which is inhabited by the Pingpu tribe of aborigines, Kaohsiung county chief Yang Chiu-hsing said. Instead of digging into some 170 mud-buried homes, a memorial park will be built on the site, he told reporters.

The island's official death toll from the storm was raised to 116 on Friday, with 59 listed as missing. But the figures did not include the estimated 400 people buried in Shiao Lin, said Wang Chin-eng, a spokesman at the relief center. It was the government's first official estimate of those feared dead in the village.

A total of 15,400 people have been rescued since Morakot dumped more than 80 inches (2 meters) of rain, the disaster relief center said.

Frightened survivors dangled high over jagged rocks and a raging river as soldiers hauled them to safety one by one along a 100-foot (30-meter)-long cable on Thursday.

Soldiers in fatigues and heavy gloves resorted to using a makeshift zipline to move people from the village of Sinkai over the Ba Si Lan River where a bridge was wiped out. Unbuckled from their harnesses, villagers looked dazed and frightened as they recalled the harrowing night of Aug. 8.

"It rained for days," said Li Wen-chuan, a grizzled-looking man of 68 with sparse salt-and-pepper hair, teeth stained red by years of betel nut chewing. "But the flood came so suddenly and with a tremendous roar. It destroyed everything in the village."

"This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me," he said, adding that many of the 32 who died in his village were friends and family. "My life will never be the same."

Among the victims were six in the village of Sinfa, who disappeared when a torrent of water cascading down a nearby mountain pulverized their homes, twisting them into a mess of concrete wreckage.

"They were there one day and now they're gone," said villager Pan Pi-shia.

Rescuers ferried 2,200 villagers to safety on Thursday, and rescue efforts Friday will focus on several remote villages with about 1,900 people, Wang said. Many of the hard-hit villages are inhabited by aborigines, who live in harsh conditions growing fruit and vegetables in the mountains.

With rising public complaints about the slow rescue work, the government said its operations have been hampered because many areas of the country were cut off when roads and bridges collapsed.

Rescuers have relied on helicopters to reach the worst-hit areas, and on Thursday authorities requested larger choppers from foreign governments capable of carrying earth-moving equipment and shelters.

Many villagers have conducted their own rescue operations. More than 20,000 troops have joined civilian workers on rescue, cleanup and rehabilitation work, officials said.