COLOMBO • Desperate Sri Lankans clambered onto rubber dinghies and makeshift rafts yesterday to flee their homes as the heaviest rains in a quarter of a century inundated the capital Colombo and stalled rescue efforts in other parts of the country.
The downpour has pounded the island since last weekend, triggering huge landslides that have buried victims in up to 15m of mud.
Officials have urged those living in affected areas to leave immediately, with more than 60 people known to have died so far and fears that the number could spike, with many more reported missing.
President Maithripala Sirisena urged citizens to help with caring for nearly half a million people affected by floods in many parts of the island. "We have already got some assistance from our friends in the international community," he said in a televised address. "Now I want to ask private individuals, companies and non-governmental organisations to help in any way you can to help the victims."
Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan has written to his Sri Lankan counterpart, Mr Mangala Samaraweera, to offer his condolences, according to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement.
"I was deeply saddened to learn about the loss of life, widespread displacement of people and severe damage to property caused by the floods and landslides over the past week in Sri Lanka," wrote Dr Balakrishnan. "Our thoughts are with you and your people. I am confident that your country will overcome this disaster with fortitude."
Sri Lankan media reports said India was sending two naval vessels with emergency relief supplies following Colombo's initial appeal for foreign assistance. The government announced the lifting of all taxes on relief supplies sent to the country by foreign donors.
Large parts of Colombo were evacuated overnight in an operation led by the military, involving boats and helicopters. The national Disaster Management Centre said around 200,000 people had been moved from the low-lying capital, which has a population of about 650,000. Official figures showed nearly half a million people have been affected by the floods, with most of them seeking shelter at state-run relief camps.
The worst-hit areas were in Colombo's north-eastern suburbs along the Kelani river, which began bursting its banks on Thursday evening. There were sporadic showers in Colombo yesterday, with heavier downpours to the north of the capital that officials said would further swell the Kelani.
Three people have been killed in flood-related incidents in Colombo, but the national toll now stands at 63. The district of Kegalle, about 100km north-east of Colombo, has been worst-hit, with the toll from two separate landslides rising to 34 after troops pulled another body from the mud overnight.
A police officer in the area said 144 people, including 37 children, had been reported missing since the landslides on Tuesday evening.
The meteorological department said the heavy rains were caused by a depression in the Bay of Bengal, ahead of the arrival of the south- west monsoon.