February 20, 2006

Rescuers pull bodies from Philippine school

By Bobby Ranoco and Pedro Uchi

GUINSAUGON, Philippines (Reuters) - Rescue workers pulled
five bodies on Monday from a Philippine school buried under a
mudslide, dashing reports of a miraculous recovery of 50 people
three days after their village was obliterated.

"We have yet to find any survivors," Captain Burrell
Parmer, a spokesman for U.S. Marines taking part in the rescue
operation, told the ABS-CBN television channel.

"Our troops have found dead bodies," he said. "They dig
with their bare hands and place them in body bags."

Parmer's somber news contradicted an earlier report from a
Philippine government official that U.S. forces had brought out
about 50 survivors from under metres of mud in the school in
Guinsaugon, a remote farming community about 675 km (420 miles)
southeast of Manila.

Friday's devastating landslide, triggered by two weeks of
heavy rain, obliterated the village of 1,800 people. So far, 84
bodies have been recovered. Relatives have reported 1,371
people still missing.

But rescuers, including U.S. Marines dispatched from annual
Philippine military exercises, focused efforts on the
elementary school after unconfirmed reports that some of the
253 people trapped inside had sent desperate text messages on


Rosette Lerias, governor of Southern Leyte province, said
some rescuers would work through the night after she said
scratching sounds were detected at the school site.

"We intend to go overnight. We don't intend to stop, not
when you have increasing signs of life."

Colonel Raul Farnacio, head of a Philippine army rescue
team, said U.S. and Filipino military had halted operations
because geologists had warned that the ground around the school
was unstable. Rain was sheeting down.

Farnacio said the likelihood that some of those trapped in
the school could be alive had risen, "from one percent to 50
percent" after rhythmic sounds were detected.

Rescuers, including teams from Taiwan and Malaysia, are
battling deep, shifting mud and have been told to tread softly
for fear of drowning in the soupy earth.

In hospital, survivors told of jumping from roofs to escape
the torrent of mud. One six-year-old girl survived by clinging
to a coconut tree.

Bloated and decomposing, 50 recovered bodies were buried on
Sunday in mass graves sprinkled with holy water and lime powder
-- a measure Health Secretary Francisco Duque said was
necessary to prevent disease from spreading in the hot, fetid


Former first lady Imelda Marcos told the anti-graft court
on Monday she had canceled her plan to go to Hong Kong to seek
alternative medicine for her ailing knees and would instead go
to Guinsaugon on Tuesday.

"The Leyte people are a priority over my health," the widow
of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos said, adding that she
intended to donate to the survivors the 630,000 pesos ($12,138)
that she had deposited with the court as travel bond.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo plans to visit
the scene on Wednesday or Thursday.

On Monday, about 500 U.S. troops rushed to Guinsaugon.
Brigadier-General Mastin Robeson said Washington planned to
divert to Leyte up to 3,000 of the 5,000 U.S, soldiers and
sailors taking part in annual war games in the southern

The Philippines is usually hit by about 20 typhoons each
year, with residents and environmental groups often blaming
illegal logging or mining for compounding the damage.

But in a country where most of the 86 million people are
Roman Catholic, commentators, officials and even survivors also
said the landslide was God's will.

Leyte island itself is no stranger to disaster. In 1991,
more than 5,000 people died in floods triggered by a typhoon.

(With reporting by Manny Mogato, Dolly Aglay and Carmel
Crimmins in Manila)