Mon, Dec 22, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Hundreds dead or missing in Philippine landslides

CHRISTMAS TRAGEDY Up to 200 people are feared dead after the devastating landslides and floods, which constitute the worst disaster in the Philippines this year

AP , MANILA

Local people yesterday recover the remains of a family who was buried in a landslide on Friday in Liloan Town in the southern Philippines.

PHOTO: EPA

Rescuers battled rain, mud and floodwaters yesterday in search of survivors and the dead after landslides and huge waves devastated eastern Philippine villages in a pre-Christmas tragedy that officials fear may have killed up to 200 people.

Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita said at least 77 people were killed, including 61 in the hard-hit central province of Southern Leyte, and 123 others were missing.

Local officials, however, have reported only 24 deaths, but the varying tolls reflected the chaos in the wake of the disaster. Officials feared the final fatality count will rise as bad weather, blocked roads and downed power and telephone lines hampered rescue and recovery work.

"We're receiving so many reports from the interior areas of whole villages being buried, of so many deaths, but we could not confirm them because roads were so badly damaged," Allen Olayvar of the Office of Civil Defense in the hard-hit town of Liloan said by phone.

One rescue team aboard a motor boat led by Leyte Governor Rosette Lerias was turned back by huge waves near one village, officials said.

"We're still conducting search, rescue and retrieval operations," said Melchor Rosales, executive director of the National Disaster Coordination Center.

Asked about the prospects of finding alive those missing since the slides and waves struck late on Friday, he replied: "We're still hoping."

Army troops, police and civilian volunteers were helping, and military helicopters were waiting for the weather to clear enough for them to fly to hard-hit villages, Rosales said.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said she has asked Washington to send in Chinook helicopters and all-weather troop and cargo carriers.

The Chinooks would come from a US military base in Okinawa, she told reporters, adding they may arrive in a couple of days.

Television images and pictures of what could be the country's worst disaster this year were grotesque: One showed a mud-splattered man desperately trying to dig out a body with a crowbar while a companion tried to pull the cadaver from the muck with his hands.

An elderly woman, who lost most of her loved ones, wept and said she wished she also had perished. Rescuers described digging up bodies of whole families buried together, including a mother embracing her children.

In Liloan, a mother wept unabashedly as she cleaned the muddy remains of her son with water from a garden hose amid a throng of onlookers.

In a rural morgue, wooden coffins bearing pieces of paper with the scrawled names of the dead lay side by side, lit by melting candles on a table. Relatives were arriving to sort out the dead and look for loved ones among the bodies, some wrapped in cellophane.

Six days of pounding rain and wind brought floods and set off landslides and huge waves that battered six provinces near the Pacific Ocean from late Friday to early Saturday, Ermita said.

Some officials blamed years of illegal logging for the tragedy. Arroyo said most of the affected areas were near overlogged hill and mountainsides and urged officials to encourage tree plantations that could hold the soil better than ordinary farms on steep slopes near villages.

Olayvar said he's confirmed that in San Ricardo's Pinutan district, a huge wave swept across a gold-mining coastal village early on Saturday, wiping out all but four huts and the chapel among its dozens of houses.

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