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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 December, 2003, 08:53 GMT
Landslide tragedy stuns Philippines
Rescuers carry a body on stretcher in Leyte
The rescue operation is being hampered by bad weather
Up to 200 people may have died in landslides triggered by heavy rains in the central Philippines, officials say.

Most of the victims were asleep when torrents of mud swept down on dozens of homes on Friday night. At least 77 bodies have been recovered.

Poor road and weather conditions have hampered efforts by rescuers to get into some of the worst-affected areas.

Illegal logging - which loosens soil - has been blamed by local officials for the landslides.

Television showed pictures of desperate efforts by relatives to uncover those missing, while rescuers described digging up bodies of entire families buried together under the mud.

"This is the worst experience we have had in years", said Rosette Lerias, the governor of southern Leyte province, the worst affected region.

She said cutting down trees from the slopes above settlements had loosened the soil.

About 120 people are thought to be missing.

The municipalities of San Francisco, Liloan and Maasin in southern Leyte have been particularly badly hit, while other casualties were reported in the Agusan and Surigao areas of neighbouring Mindanao island.

We're receiving so many reports from the interior areas of whole villages being buried, of so many deaths, but we could not confirm them because roads were so badly damaged
Allen Olayvar
civil defence official in Liloan

Rescuers have been using shovels and iron bars to dig survivors out of the debris.

An official there quoted survivors as saying they heard a great noise from the mountains, and that shortly afterwards a current of mud swept down on top of them.

Rescue efforts are being hampered by smaller landslides that have blocked roads.

Soldiers have been trying to reach the area on foot and on lorries, as heavy rain and winds grounded back-up helicopters, officials said.

'I also want to die'

"We really have no idea of the magnitude of the disaster," Governor Lerias said.

On Mindanao island to the south, at least 16 people were killed.

In Liloan, a woman named Baby Almoguera said she knew of at least 19 neighbours who had been buried by mud, although her own house had miraculously been spared because huge trees shielded her family from the approaching earth.

"If not for these trees, we would have been hit," she told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

But a neighbour who lost members of her family regretted being rescued:

"My daughter died. I also want to die so I can be with her," Teresita Arano was quoted as saying.

The BBC's John McLean in Manila says the Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone areas in the world, and landslides are particularly common.

Illegal logging was blamed for a much more deadly disaster in the same region in 1991 when floods and landslides in the city of Ormoc killed some 5,000 people.

The BBC's Clarence Mitchell
"Villagers dug frantically for their relatives and friends"

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