The 6.7 magnitude earthquake struck on Monday, triggering landslides and hundreds of aftershocks [Reuters]

Rescue workers in the Philippines are searching for dozens of people feared killed by a powerful earthquake that triggered landslides and toppled buildings on the heavily populated islands of Negros and Cebu.

Officials in Manila on Tuesday put the death toll from the 6.7-magnitude quake at 15, but rescue co-ordinators and local officials put the figure much higher and said the number was expected to rise.

Local military chiefs said 43 people were confirmed killed, but officials warned dozens of others were believed to be injured or missing in remote mountainous areas.

"Heavy equipment we've requested from the provincial government has not arrived yet, because the roads and bridges are impassable," said Alvin Futalan, the police chief of Guihulngan town on Negros, which was heavily damaged.


Al Jazeera's Marga Ortigas reports from Manila

"We are using our hands and shovels to search in the rubble," he told the AFP news agency.

Thirty-nine people were reported killed in Guihulngan, a coastal city of 100,000 people flanked by mountains that was close to the quake's epicentre.

Many buildings in the centre of the city had collapsed, while landslides had buried some homes completely, according to Fatulan.

He said the city's 42-man police rescue squad had been joined by hundreds of army troops and volunteers in clearing debris as they raced to find people still believed to be missing.

"The army (troops) had to walk about 50km (30 miles) from the last stop reachable by vehicle to reach us," Fatulan said.

Guihulngan is about 90km to the north of Dumaguete, the capital of Negros Oriental province that covers the southeastern edge of Negros where the worst effects of the quake were felt.

Seismologists said more than 700 aftershocks battered Negros during the 20 hours following the initial quake, which struck at about midday local time on Monday.

With rescuers still to reach remote hinterland communities, Negros Oriental governor Roel Degamo said he feared there could be more unreported casualties.

"Sadly, we expect the death toll could still rise," Degamo told AFP.

Colonel Francisco Zosimo Patrimonio, an army commander in Negros, said a landslide buried dozens of houses in another town near Guihulngan.

"Local officials there have a minimal estimate of 40 adults missing (with the) number of children missing undetermined," he said.

Telephone communications in some parts of Negros were also cut off, leaving information from remote regions unobtainable, according to Degamo.

Cebu, the Philippines' second biggest city with 2.3 million residents and a popular tourist destination, was 50km from the epicentre and shook violently during the initial quake but no deaths were reported there.

The Philippines sits on the Pacific "Ring of Fire", a belt around the Pacific Ocean where friction between shifting tectonic plates causes frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity.

Source: Agencies