Soldiers in Sri Lanka have stepped up a desperate search for victims of a landslide , with o fficials saying that the chances of finding survivors were slim.
More than 100 people are feared to be buried alive on a tea plantation in the island nation's central hills.
"I have visited the scene and from what I saw I don't think there will be any survivors," Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera told The Associated Press on Thursday after visiting the site.
Hundreds of rescue workers, using heavy diggers, clawed through tonnes of mud that washed away about 150 tin-roofed homes at the plantation on Wednesday while most of the residents were away at work or in school.
"We are also bringing in an additional 200 troops to add to the 500 already here to carry out the search," the region's top military officer, Major General Mano Perera, told reporters.
Rescue efforts were however, being hampered by persistent rains, blamed for the initial mudslide, and the unstable conditions of the surrounding hills, the officer said.
Shopkeeper Vevaratnam Marathamuttu said he ran when tonnes of earth came crashing down the mountain on Wednesday morning, fearing there had been an explosion.
"I thought it was some sort of a bomb blast and fled from my shop," Marathamuttu said. "I saved my life because I ran away."
|Sri Lanka, a tropical island off the southern coast of India, is prone to weather-related disasters [AFP]
Officials said 16 people were so far confirmed dead. Initial reports from Sri Lanka's Disaster Management Centre said some 250 people were missing. But Disaster Management Minister 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 7:30 am on Wednesday.
More than 300 survivors spent the night at two schools near the Meeriyabedda tea plantation which bore the full brunt of the mudslide.
An office where village records were maintained was also destroyed in the disaster, causing problems for the authorities in compiling reliable casualty figures.
If the number of dead does hit 100, the disaster would be the worst since the Asian tsunami in December 2004 when 31,000 Sri Lankans lost their lives.
The minister Amaraweera told AFP that surrounding areas were unstable as a result of the heavy rains of the last few days and expected the recovery operation to proceed "cautiously".
Sections of several national highways have also been washed away by the rains and a train was stuck after a mountain slope crashed onto a railway line and disrupted services on the single track to the heart of the tea-growing region.