Friday, August 14, 2009

Taiwan scrambles to rescue 1,000 from landslide villages

hishan, Taiwan (AFP)
Taiwan began airlifting nearly 1,000 people found alive in a cluster of villages flattened by muddy landslides, as survivors recounted the horror of watching their homes vanish.

The island-wide death toll from Typhoon Morakot rose to 107 early Thursday following Taiwan's worst flooding in half a century over the weekend, with entire villages submerged in water and mud.

The latest toll included 32 bodies found buried by mudslides in a mountain hot spring area in Liukuai, Kaohsiung county, the National Fire Agency said.

The agency said around 200 people were trapped and awaiting evacuation at another hot spring resort in Liukuai, a township made up of a cluster of mountain villages, with a total population of 15,000.

Villagers told AFP that more people could have been buried alive as some villages were either flattened or badly damaged in the typhoon.

Meanwhile, eye-witnesses described the devastation wrought on one of three villages in southern Taiwan, Hsiaolin, as survivors were ferried out by helicopter.

"I saw the mountain crumbling in seconds almost like an explosion and bury half of our neighbourhood," said Huang Chin-bao, 56.

Huang said he and 40 neighbours were guided by his two dogs to higher ground. "The dogs are our saviours," he said.

Feelings were running high at a school outside the disaster zone where relatives of the missing had gathered. Police and soldiers had to push back some who tried to storm their way on to helicopters heading to the zone.

"I cannot wait any more. I want to look for my family," a man in his 40s shouted as he argued with soldiers.

He said he had not heard anything from his family since the typhoon dumped a record three metres (120 inches) of rainfall on southern Taiwan over the weekend.

As the military rescue operation stepped up, Major-General Richard Hu said: "We have found around 700 people alive in three villages last night and 26 more this morning. We are deploying 25 helicopters to evacuate them."

Marines found some 250 villagers later Wednesday before heavy rain temporarily halted the airlift, the military said, adding 192 people had so far been ferried to safety.

Hu said he was unable to confirm how many people had been buried or killed by the landslide in Hsiaolin.

Officials have downplayed media reports that up to 600 people had been killed just in Hsiaolin. Rescuers said Tuesday that around 100 people there were feared to have been buried alive.

"We believed that some were buried but it's not possible to estimate how many at this moment as almost 90 percent of the houses were buried," Hu said.

In central Chiayi county, some 500 people remained without water and electricity in several villages around Mount Ali, a popular tourist attraction.

The death toll included three rescuers who died when their helicopter crashed into a river in heavy fog in the southern county of Pingtung on Tuesday.

Another 45 were reported injured, authorities said.

Armoured vehicles, marine landing craft and rubber dinghies have been mobilised in the rescue operation, which involved more than 17,000 troops across the island, the defence ministry said.

The typhoon has caused losses of at least nine billion Taiwan dollars (281 million US) for agriculture and another 570 million dollars in lost tourism after ravaging the island's scenic mountain and hot spring regions.

Beijing had donated 110 million yuan (16 million US dollars) towards Taiwan's typhoon relief efforts, officials in Taipei said.

Beijing made the donation through its Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits and expressed condolences for the victims of Typhoon Morakot, officials said.

China's donation is the most generous so far from the international community, with Japan and the United States donating 103,000 and 250,000 US dollars respectively.

Hong Kong pop star and actor Andy Lau was to lead a string of Taiwanese entertainers fronting a major fundraising event, organisers said.

Lau, one of Hong Kong's biggest names who is also popular in China and Taiwan, will join more than 200 homegrown stars to take donation pledges over the phone from the Taiwanese public on Friday in the four-hour fundraiser.

Taiwanese charities and companies have also launched donation drives for flood victims, raising more than two billion Taiwan dollars as of Tuesday, reports said.

Morakot is one of the worst typhoons to strike Taiwan in 50 years. In August 1959 a typhoon killed 667 people and left around 1,000 missing.

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