Dozens of people have died and hundreds gone missing after torrential rains triggered two massive landslides in central Sri Lanka. Rescuers have stopped work temporarily after searching for survivors for nearly 20 hours.
The officer in charge of the rescue operation, Sudanta Ranasinghe, told reporters on Wednesday that rescuers had found over a dozen bodies and that 134 were still officially missing. Hundreds of others sought shelter in temporary camps set up in schools.
The official death toll was around 37, although that number could rise sharply. A Red Cross official told journalists that the final death toll could reach "around 300-400."
"We have stopped the operations for the day since it's dark and the operation continued for over 20 hours. We will start again tomorrow morning," Ranasinghe said. Heavy fog, electrical outages and loose ground were complicating efforts to find survivors and continuous rain could trigger more landslides, officials warned.
Rescue efforts were focused on the town of Aranayaka, around 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of the capital, Colombo. Three villages around the area were buried under the debris on Tuesday, when disaster struck. Although there were no official figures about the number of residents, the villages typically included 1,000- 1,500 residents.
Villagers reported torrents of muddy water, branches of trees and debris crashing on their homes. "I heard a huge sound like a plane crashing into the earth… I opened my door. I could not believe my eyes," she told Reuters news agency.
More than 223,000 people have been fleeing their homes after torrential monsoon rains struck the country. Sri Lanka experiences alternate bouts of flooding and drought almost every year.
mg/bw (Reuters, AP, dpa)