KUNDASANG, Malaysia - Nine more bodies have been found following the quake in Mount Kinabalu, bringing the death toll to 11, with eight people still unaccounted for.
"As at noon time, 11 bodies have been recovered (2 identified) and 8 people are still missing," Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun posted on Twitter on Saturday. "Police forensic teams have arrived to assist," he said.
The Star also quoted him telling a media conference that the bodies would be airlifted out of the mountain. Ranau police chief Deputy Supt Farhan Lee Abdullah, who was also present at the conference, said they they were awaiting for the weather to clear for helicopters to fly out the bodies.
Malaysian rescuers had earlier on Saturday brought down to safety 137 hikers who had been stuck on the mountain for up to 18 hours, their descent blocked by damage to a key trail and the threat of continuing rockfalls, AFP reported. Photos of rescuers carrying the injured on what appeared to be makeshift stretchers also emerged on Facebook.
The 6.0-magnitude quake struck early Friday near the picturesque mountain, a popular tourist destination, sending landslides and huge granite boulders tumbling down from the 4,095-metre peak's wide, jagged crown.
Mr Masidi said that the mountain would be closed for at least three weeks to enable a clean-up following serious damage to its trails, accommodation and other facilities. The closure, he said, would enable Sabah Parks to take stock of the damage and determine the necessary repairs that had to be carried out. He also praised the dedication of the mountain guides who helped with rescue efforts.
"Our overriding concern has always been the safety of the climbers," he said, adding they were planning an interfaith religious ceremony on the mountain.
Earlier, Malaysian reports cited authorities as saying most of the missing after Friday's quake were Singaporeans and Malaysians. Others missing were a national each from China, the Philippines and Japan. Those missing were among 187 tourist climbers on the mountain.
Mr Farhan had earlier on Saturday said the missing Singaporeans were among a group from the Tanjong Katong Primary School who had been trekking along the Via Ferrata when the earthquake shook.
He said the Malaysians who were missing comprised three climbers as well as two staff members of Mountain Torq, which operated the Via Ferrata, and a mountain guide.
He had added that two bodies, including that of a local tour guide and a Singaporean female, had been brought down and taken to hospital for a post mortem.
Some 20 others sustained various injuries, including broken limbs with one person said to be in a coma, The Malay Mail Online reported.
The current search and rescue operation will take place over land and air and involve 48 members from the Special Malaysia Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (SMART) and the Fire and Rescue Department. They will trek nearly 7km from the Timpohon gate at the base of the mountain.
He said about a dozen SMART personnel would also be dropped by helicopters at the search area.
Asked about the chances of finding the missing alive, Mr Farhan said: "We can only pray for the best."
He said they hoped to find those missing by Saturday and wind up the search and rescue operation.
"We will continue the search until everyone has been accounted for," he added.
The quake, one of the strongest in the country in decades, jolted a wide area of Sabah state, shattering windows, cracking walls and sending people fleeing from buildings in the nearby state capital of Kota Kinabalu.
But no reports of major damage have emerged and no other casualties have yet been reported outside of those that occurred on the mountain.
The Johor government said it was considering sending aid, including volunteers and basic supplies, to help victims of the Sabah earthquake, The Star reported.
Chief Minister Datuk Mohamed Khaled Nordin said that Johor was looking at ways to help the victims of the disaster.
"We sympathise with the earthquake victims there, especially those in the Ranau district," he said.