01 августа 2014 14:36

Rescuers battle rains after India landslide, 150 feared dead


Rescue workers dug through deep mud and debris on Thursday in search of victims of a major landslide in western India that buried homes, with the death toll expected to reach 150, AFP reports.

Rescue workers dug through deep mud and debris on Thursday in search of victims of a major landslide in western India that buried homes, with the death toll expected to reach 150, AFP reports.

Following monsoon downpours in the Pune district of Maharashtra state, a hillside gave way early on Wednesday, sending a mass of muddy earth and trees tumbling onto a remote village while residents were sleeping.

The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) said 23 bodies and eight survivors had so far been pulled from the site, but heavy rain was preventing rescuers from working quickly to find more survivors.

"Miracles do happen, we will keep looking, but under current conditions it is very, very bleak," said Alok Avasthy, a NDRF regional commandant at the scene.

He said around 160 people were thought to have been trapped in the landslide, which damaged half of the village's 70 homes.

"The mud slide must have been massive and very quick considering it has covered an area roughly the size of a football field with nearly 10-15 feet (3-4.5 metres) of debris," Avasthy told AFP.

H.H. Chavan, Pune district's deputy director of health, said late Wednesday that they expected to pull about another 140 bodies from the scene.

Television footage showed a chunk of hillside dramatically giving way and a cascade of mud, rocks and trees, sending up clouds of dust below.

Twisted metal, shreds of clothes

At the site where village homes earlier stood, twisted metal utensils and shreds of clothes were among the debris on Thursday morning.

The ongoing heavy downpours and howling wind nearly masked the sound of heavy rescue machinery as it strained to move the slush.

"The issue is that as we remove the mud, more is flowing in since the rains have been incessant," said Pravin Sadhale, with the Maharashtra Emergency Medical Services.

The NDRF said it had mobilised nine teams with a strength of 378 trained personnel to help with the rescue effort, although its vehicles had difficulty accessing the site along narrow, damaged roads.

Its dog squad remained locked up in a village health centre on Thursday because the animals were unable to sniff scents in the incessant rains, while workers faced the risk of further landslides.

"The hills are soft due to rains and deforestation," said Avasthy.

The alarm was first sounded when a state bus driver failed to see the usual hamlet dwellings as he drove past the area, according the Press Trust of India news agency, citing a local official.

PTI said the victims of the landslide were members of a tribal community that survived by paddy farming on hill slopes in the once densely-forested region.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described the loss of life as "saddening" on Twitter.

Heavy rains have lashed Maharashtra and other parts of India as a result of the annual monsoon.

While the rains are a lifeline for the Indian economy, with nearly three-quarters of the 1.2 billion-strong population dependent on rural incomes, flooding and building collapses are frequent during monsoon season.

Reports on Thursday said a cloudburst had killed three in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, while recent landslips have blocked roads to popular Hindu pilgrimage sites.

The state was hit by a landslide and flooding disaster last year that is thought to have killed nearly 6,000 pilgrims, tourists and others.

An apartment tower under construction came crashing down in the southern city of Chennai late June following heavy rains, killing 61, mostly labourers.

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