ELANGAPITIYA VILLAGE, Sri Lanka (AP) — Hundreds of soldiers resumed the slow and difficult search Friday for hundreds of people missing after landslides swallowed three hillside villages in central Sri Lanka, a dangerous effort as continuing rain kept the ground unstable and the risk of more mudslides a constant threat.
By Friday morning, rescuers had recovered 30 bodies, out of hundreds believed buried on Tuesday when torrents of thick, red mud buried the villages of Siripura, Pallebage and Elangapitya. The Sri Lankan Red Cross has said at least 220 families were unaccounted for.
"It's a very difficult task, but troops will carry out their work in the hope of finding more" in the remote, disaster site in Kegalle district, about 72 kilometers (45 miles) north of Colombo, said millitary spokesman Brig. Jayanath Jayaweera.
Rescuers held out little hope of finding survivors. Pointing to an expanse of mud covering the 66 houses that once stood in Elangapitiya, Maj. Gen. Sudantha Ranasinghe said, "All gone with that landslide."
On the chance of someone being found alive, he said, "I have my doubts."
More than 1,550 displaced villagers sheltered in crowded schools and a Buddhist temple near the hill, waiting for news about the fate of missing loved ones. White flags decorated the doorways — a symbol of mourning.
"The destruction is so bad," tea farmer A. Dharmasena said as he huddled in the Viyaneliya Buddhist Temple with hundreds of other evacuees. "You can't bring the village back to what it was before."
Rains triggered new, thunderous landslides on Thursday, sending frightened villagers running from shelters to higher ground.
Most of the bodies recovered were in Elangapitiya, the village furthest down the hill, as conditions prevented search efforts higher up.
Like much of Sri Lanka, the area around the villages had been cleared for agriculture and tea plantations, leaving the countryside exposed and raising the threat of landslides during seasonal monsoon rains.
The downpours that started Sunday continued to lash all of Sri Lanka, causing severe flooding in cities including Colombo and unleashing smaller mudslides elsewhere in the country.
Since Monday, 58 people have died from lightning strikes, floods, falling trees and landslides nationwide, including the 30 confirmed deaths in the Kegalle district, according to the Disaster Management Center.
Tens of thousands have been evacuated from homes across the island to some 594 shelters.
The government ordered all schools to close Friday, and more rain was predicted. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said there was an urgent need for water purification tablets, water pumps and drinking water.
Many parts of Colombo and its suburbs were inundated, with floodwaters reaching rooftops in some areas.
"Everything is gone," said Mohomed Sabri, who was able to grab his children's birth certificates and his passport before his home in the Kolonnawa suburb of Colombo disappeared under 3 meters (9 feet) of water.
"This ... is unbelievable," he said. "All my savings, my valuables, have gone with the water."
Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi in Colombo contributed to this report.