KOSLANDA, Sri Lanka (AP) — A mudslide triggered by monsoon rains buried scores of workers' houses at a tea plantation in central Sri Lanka, raising fears that hundreds may have been killed.
In the chaos that followed Wednesday morning's disaster, there was confusion about the number of dead and missing because government officials reported different figures and later reduced the number of missing by 100 without explanation.
The mudslide struck at about 7:30 a.m. and wiped out 120 workers' homes at the Koslanda tea plantation, said Lal Sarath Kumara, an official from the Disaster Management Center. The plantation is in the town of Koslanda in Badulla district about 140 miles (220 kilometers) east of Colombo.
He said at least 10 people were killed and more than 250 reported missing.
A 48-year-old truck driver who gave his name only as Raja said he lost all five members of his household — his wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and his 6-month-old grandchild.
"I left for work early morning and got a call asking me to rush back because there is an earth slip near my home. I came back and there is no trace of my home, everyone was buried," he said Thursday morning while weeping.
Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera was quoted by media Wednesday as saying that more than 100 people had been killed. But moments later he told The Associated Press that less than 100 people were missing but they could not be counted as dead.
By late Wednesday, the Disaster Management Center's official numbers were six dead and 150 missing. Pradeep Kodippili, a senior official at the center, did not explain the changes but said the agency would be able to give the media a clearer picture by Thursday morning.
The mudslide scene and eyewitness accounts suggested the disaster was enormous. Mud completely covered many homes while the roofs of some were visible. Water gushing down hillsides indicated more slides were possible.
Scores of children who had left for school early morning returned only to see their homes vanished without a trace along with their parents.
The military mobilized troops to help with the rescue operation as rain continued to fall in the island nation's central hills.
"Everything that I saw yesterday I could not see today — buildings, the temple and shops had all disappeared. I could only see mud everywhere," P. Arumugam, who works as a driver on the plantation, said Wednesday.
Marimuttu Navaneethan, a 28-year-old shopkeeper, said he heard a big noise and saw mud rolling down toward his home. He and his family ran from the house, which was soon mostly covered by the mudslide. He said 65 other nearby houses were completely covered.
State broadcaster Rupavahini showed huge mounds of earth covering the houses and muddy water still gushing from the hilltops.
About 500 military personnel and civilians searched for survivors with the help of heavy earthmoving equipment. The search was later called off for the night because of rain and muddy conditions, military spokesman Brigadier Jayanath Jayawerera said.
Most of Sri Lanka had experienced heavy rain over the past few weeks, and the Disaster Management Center had issued warnings of mudslides and falling rocks. The monsoon season in the Indian Ocean island nation runs from October through December.
A local government official said that the area had been marked vulnerable since 2008 and even evacuation drills had been conducted.
However, workers had not been given alternative homes to move into, the official said on condition of anonymity because government rules prohibit him from speaking to media. He said the absence of a proper rain water draining system on the hill may have loosened the soil over time.
Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, is one of the world's leading producers of tea. Most Ceylon tea, as it is known, is produced in the central hills, where the high altitudes and rainfall provide favorable conditions.
Associated Press writers Bharatha Mallawarachi and Krishan Francis in Colombo contributed to this report.