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Philippines landslide forces gold mines to close

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine government on Friday ordered the shutdown of gold-mining tunnels threatened by landslides in a southern town where a chunk of a mountain tumbled down on sleeping residents, killing at least 27 people.

The landslide struck hours before dawn Thursday on a mountain dotted with mine shafts and crude shanties with corrugated metal roofs in Napnapan village in Compostela Valley province.

It was the area's second deadly landslide in a year: Twenty people were killed in a neighboring village last April, and prompted the environment secretary to call for curbing permits in the region's small-scale gold-mining industry.

VIDEO: Landslide buries mining settlement in Philippines
Landslide kills at least 25 in Philippines

Authorities in Pantukan township, where Napnapan village is located, expect to complete a survey next week that will indicate where landslides are likely to happen. Mines that sit in the danger zone will be ordered shut, and the workers and their families living on the mountain will be relocated, said Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo.

Robredo, who flew over the village in a military helicopter Friday, also ordered that gold ore processing be moved from Napnapan village to the town center so that the miners' families don't have to live with them near the mines.

"It will be more expensive, but it will be more safe," he said. "I am sure there will be resistance; that's why this will be enforced by the armed forces and the police."

There are an estimated 1,000 mining tunnels in Pantukan, Robredo said.

Mine shafts honeycomb the hills and mountains in Pantukan, making them unstable and causing frequent accidents. The area is a magnet for the poor and the unemployed who do not have any training in mining but hope to strike it rich in a country where the poorest live on about one dollar a day. The miners dig for gold with basic implements, pickaxes and iron bars, and carry the ore in sacks on their backs.

Pantukan town spokesman Arnulfo Lantayan told The Associated Press that five more bodies were recovered Friday, bringing to 27 the number of confirmed fatalities. Three of the dead were sisters, aged 6-14.

Lantayan said chances of finding survivors under 15-25 feet (5 to 8 meters) of muddy debris were "very slim."

Officials have no good estimate of how many people are missing, but said early reports of up to 100 were overblown. Many may have stayed elsewhere for the Christmas holiday, they said, or may have fled their mountainside shanties earlier in the night when the hill started to crumble.

It was difficult to determine the number of missing because local authorities have no reliable records of the mostly migrant miners who work in the area with their families, Civil Defense chief Benito Ramos said.

Boulders, trees and muddy soil tumbled down the slopes with a loud crash "like a dump truck unloading gravel and sand," said survivor Darwin Aguinawon, 27. "In only three seconds, our house came rolling down the slope."

Army photographs show a steep mountainside that looks like it was gouged by a giant shovel. Houses are buried in rubble or lying on their sides, while crumpled metal roofs and trees lay nearby.

One tunnel entrance appeared half-covered by rocks and soil. It was not known how many mine shafts have been blocked by debris or whether there were people inside.

A fissure in the mountain discovered last year likely was aggravated by heavy rains and continuous mining in the saturated ground.

Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon Paje said authorities had warned residents and local officials last year that the fissure made the mountain susceptible to a landslide.

He urged local officials to stop handing out small-scale mining permits, now estimated to number about 3,000 all around the watershed.

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