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Philippines mudslides toll now 89
( 2003-12-22 09:42) (Agencies)

Entire families were buried alive in the mudslides that have killed at least 89 people in the eastern Philippines, rescuers said Sunday as they searched for more than 125 people still missing.

Melchor Rosales, executive director of the National Disaster Coordination Center, said Sunday the death toll included 61 in the hard-hit central province of Southern Leyte.

At least 125 people were missing, however, and regional officials reported more bodies than in the government's official count.

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.

CNN producer Marga Ortigas said that lack of equipment was hampering rescue efforts and blocked roads meant some areas were unable to be reached at all.

Leyte Gov. Rosette Lerias returned from a wrecked village in the San Francisco coastal area late Sunday and reported 16 more dead there, which would place the toll at 99.

She told CNN she had seen a depressing sight of rivers of mud and bodies piling up.

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

She told The Associated Press: "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," Lerias said. "The rescuers were using heavy equipment, and in one spot they dug up the hand of a child."

Some blamed years of illegal logging for the landslides, but Lerias told CNN that logging was not to blame and this was a coconut growing area. Water had just rushed down the hillsides through crevices, she said.

However 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.

A mudslide survivor, speaks to a reporter after being trapped in the mud in central Philippines.

Lerias said an 89-year-old man and 14-year-old girl were rescued. Both appeared to have survived in an air pocket, she said.

"I'm still hoping that some could be found alive. Even saving one or two would be worth all the effort," the governor said.

Rescuers found 49 bodies in Punta. Several villagers had sought shelter in a house and died when it was engulfed by mud flowing down a mountainside toward the ocean, she said.

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

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

The president canceled a plan to travel Sunday to Leyte, about 395 miles southeast of Manila, after officials warned the trip would be too risky. "I'm deeply saddened that the tragedy struck them amidst Christmas," Arroyo said.

Television images of the disaster showed a mud-splattered man desperately trying to dig out a body with a crowbar while a companion tried to pull it from the muck with his hands. Rescuers described digging up bodies of whole families buried together, including a mother embracing her children.

In a rural, candlelit morgue, wooden coffins bearing pieces of paper with the scrawled names of the dead lay side by side.

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