Sri Lanka cuts number of dead, missing from mudslide to 38, from initial toll of over 300

KOSLANDA, Sri Lanka (AFP) - Sri Lanka on Saturday reduced to 38 the number of dead and missing from a mudslide at a tea plantation after giving an initial toll of over 300.

Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said interviews with survivors and officials found the number of victims was far below early estimates by disaster management authorities. "There had been a lot of confusion about the casualties, but we arrived at our figures after a thorough and a proper investigation," Mr Rohana told AFP. "We have all the names of the 38 people who are dead or missing."

Five bodies have been recovered, Mr Rohana said, as relief workers kept up the search for more victims of Wednesday's disaster. The authorities initially estimated the number of presumed dead at 300 and then reduced the toll to 100 three days ago.

The police said they had discovered many of the people thought to be dead or missing were at work or school when their homes were swallowed by mud at the Meeriyabedda tea estate, 200km east of the capital Colombo.

The number of houses destroyed has also been lowered to 66 from an earlier figure of 150.

The army used sniffer dogs and deployed more heavy excavators on Saturday to clear the disaster area as relief workers looked for more bodies.

The weather improved following overnight rains, aiding the relief effort.

Survivors have recounted how drinking-water streams turned muddy, cracks appeared in the ground and cattle and goats started running down the mountain slope just before the tragedy struck.

Some people lost entire families. One driver recounted how his wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and a six-month-old baby girl had been swallowed by the mud.

Ms Shanthi Selvadurai, 23, said she was trying to flee the mudslide when she suddenly found herself buried to the neck. "My mother managed to get to safety. She came back with two men who dug me out," Ms Selvadurai said, nursing a leg injury.

Officials say more than 1,200 people living in neighbouring tea plantations have sheltered in two schools, fearing more mudslides in the picturesque but geographically unstable tea-growing mountain region.

Sri Lanka, a tropical island at the foot of India, is prone to weather-related disasters, especially during the monsoon season.