- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2003

LILOAN, Philippines (AP) — Rescuers battled rain and mud yesterday in search of survivors after landslides and floods devastated villages in the eastern Philippines, killing at least 99 persons.

Melchor Rosales, executive director of the National Disaster Coordination Center, said the death toll included 61 in the hard-hit central province of southern Leyte. At least 123 persons were missing, and regional officials reported more bodies than in the government’s official count.

Leyte Gov. Rosette Lerias returned late yesterday from a wrecked village in the San Francisco coastal area, where 16 bodies were found.

Bad weather, blocked roads and downed power and telephone lines hampered work to rescue survivors or recover bodies from the landslides, triggered by six days of pounding rains and winds in six provinces near the Pacific Ocean late Friday to early Saturday.

“I just came from a very, very depressing site,” Mrs. Lerias said by cell phone.

She said the mountainside village of about 360 people, called Punta, was a scene of mayhem, with more than half its 83 houses destroyed or buried under mounds of debris and coconut trees.

“There was mud all over. You couldn’t see anything but rooftops with the houses submerged in mud. There’s debris, wood, old clothes, kitchen utensils strewn all around,” Mrs. Lerias said. “The rescuers were using heavy equipment, and in one spot they dug up the hand of a child.”

Mrs. Lerias said at least three more villages in Leyte remained blocked from rescuers, and that huge waves had forced her boat to turn back on approaching a village in the San Ricardo area.

Soldiers, police and volunteers were helping with rescue and recovery efforts. Military helicopters were waiting for clearer weather so that they could fly to hard-hit villages.

Some blamed the landslides on years of illegal logging. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said most of the affected areas were near overlogged hills and mountains, and urged officials to encourage forestation that could hold the soil better on steep slopes near villages.

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