A Sri Lankan official said on Thursday there was no hope of finding survivors after a mudslide tore through a tea plantation, but there were widely conflicting reports about how many people had been buried alive under the rubble and mud.
Disaster management minister Mahinda Amaraweera estimated the number of dead in Wednesday's disaster at the Koslanda tea plantation would be fewer than 100, although villagers said the figure could easily exceed 200.
"I have visited the scene and from what I saw I don't think there will be any survivors," Amaraweera told The Associated Press on Thursday. "But that number is less than 100."
Initial reports from Sri Lanka's Disaster Management Center said some 250 people were missing. But Amaraweera has cut that figure significantly, saying some people believed to have been buried were actually at work or school when the mudslide struck at 7:30am in the island nation's central hills.
Heavy monsoon rains caused the mudslide, which wiped out 120 workers' homes at the Koslanda tea plantation in Badulla district, which is about 140 miles (220 kilometers) east of Colombo, said Lal Sarath Kumara, an official from the Disaster Management Center.
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," Raja said Thursday morning, weeping. "I came back and there is no trace of my home, everyone was buried."
About 500 military personnel and civilians resumed the rescue operation Thursday morning after halting for the night because of rain and slippery conditions. Mud covered many homes, in some cases leaving only the roofs 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.
"Everything that I saw yesterday I could not see today - buildings, the temple and shops had all disappeared. I could only see mud everywhere," said P. Arumugam, who works as a driver on the plantation.
Most of Sri Lanka has experienced heavy rain over the past few weeks, and the Disaster Management Center had issued warnings of mudslides and falling rocks. The monsoon season here runs from October through December.
A local government official said that the area had been marked vulnerable since 2008, and 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.