Sat, Jan 07, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Time running out for landslide victims

RACE AGAINST THE CLOCK Soldiers, police and volunteers have only 24 hours left to find any more survivors before the search is called off, rescue officials said


Search and rescue workers raced yesterday to reach victims of landslides that buried several Indonesian villages beneath tonnes of mud and rocks, but hopes of finding survivors were fading. More than 240 people were missing or feared dead.

Relatives looked on anxiously as bodies were pulled from the rubble days after pounding rain on the main island of Java unleashed landslides in Cijeruk and Jember, divided by hundreds of kilometers of mountainous terrain.

So far 149 corpses have been found and rescuers said they may have to halt their search in the next 24 hours.

Yesterday President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met with thousands of people left homeless by the flash floods that ripped through Jember earlier this week, promising government assistance in rebuilding bridges and roads.

"Let us pray for our brothers and sisters who perished and those who lost their loved ones," he said, stopping to talk to grieving mothers.

Hundreds of soldiers, police and volunteers were sifting through the heavy mud in search of life yesterday, as excavators slowly pushed aside decimated homes and mountains of debris.

But many people were resigned to the fact that few of the missing would be found alive.

Niti Turmadi, 40, said her sister Hisah was going to the market when the mud, trees and rocks plowed down the hill flanking Cijeruk just before dawn on Wednesday, sweeping away everything in its path.

"She has not returned," said Turmadi, waiting with other survivors beneath a blue tent that was erected next to a small mosque, as the dead were delivered one by one.

"I am quite sure her body will be found, so I'll keep waiting."

Heavy tropical downpours cause dozens of landslides and flash floods each year in Indonesia, where millions of people live in mountainous regions and near fertile flood plains close to rivers.

Environmentalists and government officials said it did not appear that illegal logging played a role in the latest disasters, which followed weeks of pounding rain.

"There is no illegal logging here," said Forestry Minister Malam Kaban, after visiting the disaster zones, though he noted that poor forest management may have exacerbated the problem in Jember.

Large swathes of land there had been cleared for coffee plantations, he noted.

So far 108 bodies have been found in Jember. Another 41 have been recovered in Cijeruk where, according to the village chief, 100 others were missing.

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