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Landslide Rescues Move Slowly

Villagers on a remote Indonesian island Thursday dug away at the remains of their houses trying to find relatives buried under tons of mud and rubble.

At least 35 people have been confirmed dead in the mountainous interior of Nias island, off the west coast of Sumatra. About 200 villagers are still unaccounted for, officials said.

Authorities had yet to visit many villages, raising fears the death toll could rise over the next few days.

Rescue attempts on the island were being hampered by blocked roads, poor communication and disorganization. There was no heavy lifting equipment, and many search teams were without even basic agricultural tools.

Local government official Herlan Tandjung said rescuers had reached more than 600 people who had been reported missing since floods triggered by days of heavy rain hit the island on Tuesday.

Initially, officials had reported that 64 people had died. However, they scaled the figure back after they received more reliable information.

"We are still looking for the missing people," said local police chief Muhammad Nainggolan. "We hope they are not buried alive."

There was no reaction to the disaster from political leaders in Jakarta, who were occupied in horse-trading for positions in the Cabinet of new President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Seen from the air, flood waters had washed away roads and covered the southwest of the island. A major river had burst its banks and landslides had flattened trees and scarred hillsides.

In Sehareu village, 50 miles south of the island's main town, Gunung Sitoli, dozens of barefoot villagers equipped only with poles waded through rivers of mud to search for survivors.

Sitting in the ruins of her house, one victim told of the minutes before disaster struck.

"We were sleeping in the house when water and mud started flooding in," said Wati Hulu. "I grabbed my children and we ran for our lives."

Rescuers pulled the body of a 40-year-old women from 3 meters 10 feet of mud. They wrapped the corpse in palm leaves before taking it away for burial.

At least 1,500 people were made homeless by the disaster and were sheltering in four camps in Lalusa district, one of the worst-hit areas, said Nias police chief Gen. Kusnanto.

Kusnanto, who like many Indonesians uses one name, said there was no heavy construction equipment on the island.


Floods and Droughts: learn more.

The island is popular with adventurous foreign tourists wanting to see indigenous tribal culture. Thousands of surfers also visit the island.

No foreign visitors were affected by the disaster.

The island, 780 miles northwest of Jakarta, has a population of about 600,000. Most are Christian, a minority in predominantly Muslim Indonesia.

It only has a small airstrip. A journey by boat from the nearest por on Sumatra island takes at least eight hours.

Flooding and landslides kill hundreds of people in Indonesia every year, mostly during the rainy season. Officials and environmentalists say deforestation by loggers and villagers needing firewood contribute to the disasters.

By DANIEL COONEY
© MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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