A mudslide triggered by monsoon rains has buried scores of people in central Sri Lanka, killing at least 15 and leaving 400 others missing, officials said.

The mudslide happened early in the morning on Wednesday, wiping out more than 100 homes of tea garden workers at the Meeriabedda tea estate, 218 kms east of the capital, Colombo.

Rescue workers pulled out bodies and troops were mobilised to help with the rescue operations.

"We have reports of 140 houses getting washed away in the mudslides," Sarath Kumara, the national Disaster Management Centre spokesman told the AFP news agency.

State broadcaster Rupavahini showed huge mounds of earth covering the houses, with only parts of the roofs visible on some. It showed more muddy water gushing from the hilltops.

Heavy rainfall has also washed away sections of several national highways, slowing down traffic.

About 500 military personnel and civilians were searching for survivors late on Wednesday with the help of heavy earthmoving equipment, according to a local journalist at the scene.

Rain fell intermittently, but was not strong enough to hamper the rescue work.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa posted a statement on Twitter saying that he had ordered officials to provide early relief and speed up the rescue work.

The Disaster Management Centre said it had repeatedly warned residents to move to safer areas after heavy monsoon rains in recent weeks.

The monsoon season in the Indian Ocean island nation runs from October through December.

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 favourable conditions.

Source: Agencies