February 25, 2006

Philippines’ mudslide search called off

MANILA (Reuters) - The search for survivors from a deadly
Philippine mudslide was called off as rescue workers gave up
hope for nearly 1,000 people buried under a huge crust of earth
and debris, a senior official said on Saturday.

Southern Leyte province Governor Rosette Lerias said 139
bodies had been retrieved since the February 17 landslide
obliterated the remote farming community of Guinsaugon, about
675 km (420 miles) southeast of Manila.

But there was now no hope of finding anyone alive among the
973 still missing under the fetid mud, which was up to 40
meters deep in some places, and rescuers had switched their
work to retrieving bodies.

"We've moving on now to search and retrieval and
rehabilitation and relocation of the survivors," Lerias said.
"We will try to retrieve as many for as long as the conditions
do not pose a health hazard to our rescuers."

Rescuers, including U.S. Marines dispatched from annual
Philippine military exercises, had focused their efforts on an
elementary school under the mud after unconfirmed reports that
some of those trapped inside had sent desperate text messages.

Earlier this week, seismic equipment had picked up
scratching noises and rhythmic sounds close to the school. But
no new noise had been detected since Monday.

Lerias said some international rescue teams had decided to
abandon their search after heavy rain on Friday brought
near-flooding conditions.

"The Spanish started to leave even before yesterday ... the
conditions are not good for their dogs because it has been
raining hard," she said. "Taiwan is leaving this afternoon,
Malaysia is leaving tomorrow."

She said an Indonesian team would stay on for one month as
a medical mission, while U.S. forces were still helping with
the relocation of around 400 who escaped the deluge and many
others who were evacuated from nearby villages.

The government says it had identified Guinsaugon and the
surrounding region as a danger zone for landslides last May
because it lies near the so-called Philippine fault, a crack
along the earth's crust which is susceptible to earthquakes.

But environmental group Greenpeace has charged that the
government failed to act on its own warnings.

Residents were evacuated a week before the disaster struck
because of heavy rains but many came back when there was a
brief break in the downpour.