October 31, 2014 / 2:38 PM / in 3 years

Rains slow Sri Lankan landslide search; nearly 150 feared dead

A member of a military rescue team pauses during search operations at the site of a landslide at the Koslanda tea plantation near Haldummulla October 30, 2014.Dinuka Liyanawatte

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Heavy rains hampered search operations on Friday at the site of a landslide in Sri Lanka where more than 100 people were buried under tons of mud and rubble two days ago.

Fears of further landslips in the rain-sodden hills around the tea-plantation village of Haldummulla also slowed efforts to recover the dead, after a disaster that has brought offers of assistance from neighbor India and the United States.

Officials had originally put the death toll from Wednesday's landslide at more than 300 but reduced it after it emerged that many schoolchildren and plantation workers had been at a safe distance when the avalanche engulfed their homes.

Latest data from Sri Lanka's Disaster Management Center showed that 183 people had survived out of a total of 330 who lived in the area in south-central Sri Lanka.

As soldiers and police worked to clear mounds of earth, survivors were housed in two temporary camps set up nearby.

Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera told parliament the cabinet had decided to help them build new homes in a safe location.

A local resident told Reuters around 150 clay and cement houses had been buried in the landslide, which was 3 km (2 miles) long and was triggered by days of heavy monsoon rains.

Ravichandran Gajini, 14, said her parents had left their house before the landslide but hurried back in to retrieve documents.

"Both mother and father asked me to run with my brother and went to get their important documents. But when I turned back, I saw the earth covering both of them," Gajini, who was with her 12-year-old brother, said weeping.

K. Krishnamoorthy, a 58-year-old plantation worker, said there had been warnings of landslides since 2002 and residents had been advised to leave but not offered anywhere else to settle.

"We are still in the same house because we don't have any alternative," he told Reuters.

Many people in the hilly area some 190 km (120 miles) from the capital Colombo are Indian-origin Tamils, descendants of workers brought to Sri Lanka under British rule as cheap labor to work on tea, rubber and coffee plantations.

Editing by John Chalmers and Andrew Roche

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