Continued rainfall in Sri Lanka has temporarily forced soldiers and police to suspend rescue work after Tuesday's landslides. At least 17 people are known to have been killed, and hundreds have been reported missing.
As rains and minor mud falls made their work increasingly dangerous on Thursday, rescuers briefly halted their search for survivors of Tuesday's landslides. Major General Sudantha Ranasinghe, who is leading recovery efforts in the region, expressed doubt that rescuers would find survivors.
"We don't have a trace of any house here," Ranasinghe said, pointing to an area where 66 homes had once stood. "All gone with that landslide. So I have my doubts."
Heavy rains have lashed the island nation for several days, and officials said the extent of the tragedy remained unclear. The Sri Lankan Red Cross reported at least 220 families unaccounted for.
"The task is to figure out what happened to them," the Red Cross announced in a statement, noting that some people may have left after local officials warned of landslides earlier this week.
Heavy fog, rain, electrical outages and the loose ground have made it difficult to search for survivors. Officials have also warned that, with rain still falling, more landslides could occur in the area.
The rains have also caused severe flooding in Sri Lanka's cities, including Colombo, the capital, damaging tens of thousands of homes and closing schools. In addition to the 17 people known to have been killed in Tuesday's major landslides, Sri Lanka's disaster management center has reported at least 38 deaths across the country since Monday, from lightning strikes, floods, falling trees and other, smaller mud falls. Nationwide, the disasters have displaced more than 135,000 people.
On Tuesday torrents of muddy water, tree branches and debris came crashing down around villages in the Kegalle district, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) north of Colombo. Officials could not give precise populations for the villages, but such municipalities typically have 1,000-1,500 residents.
"The loss is devastating," President Maithripala Sirisena wrote on Twitter after visiting the area on Wednesday.
On Thursday torrents of water continued to stream down the hill where the villages had stood. Military spokesman Brigadier Jayanath Jayaweera told reporters in Colombo that the army would deploy more troops if needed. Jayaweera said the army had so far rescued 156 people trapped by landslides and given more than 1,550 people shelter in nine locations.
mkg/kl (AFP, AP)