Page last updated at 16:40 GMT, Friday, 14 August 2009 17:40 UK

Hopes fade for Taiwan survivors

The south-western village of Hsiaolin was buried by a mudslide

Hopes are fading that rescuers will be able to save hundreds of people trapped by mudslides and floods in Taiwan, six days after Typhoon Morakot struck.

Thousands of troops are struggling across shattered roads and collapsed bridges to reach stranded communities.

The official death toll has risen to 120, but President Ma Ying-jeou earlier said the final figure could exceed 500.

Mr Ma's government has been criticised by some for its allegedly slow and inadequate response to the disaster.

Critics say the authorities were too slow to realise the magnitude of the emergency, while some of those stranded say they have received no help for days and are short of food and water.

Many have been waiting for days at the rescue operation centre in Qishan for news of relatives missing since the typhoon struck.

"There are younger people who are arranging rescue missions of their own, because people have received cell-phone text messages from their family members in Taiwan saying they are short of supplies, they are stranded, they don't have anything to eat," one rescue worker in Kaohsiung, Benson, told the BBC.

Officials says rescue teams have been hampered by sustained rains in the centre and south of the island, and a badly damaged road network which means many villages can only be accessed by air.

"The government will overcome all obstacles to accomplish the mission," President Ma said.

Memorial park

After days of sending helicopters to evacuate survivors and distribute aid in the south-western village of Hsiaolin, which was buried by a mudslide, rescuers managed to reach it by road on Thursday.

Cindy Sui
Cindy Sui
BBC News, Hsiaolin

Having seen Hsiaolin with my own eyes, I finally understand the magnitude of what happened. It looks like a river bed with nothing on it - the houses are all gone and a 17m bridge that was there can't be seen any more.

Nearly 400 people are buried under a 20-30m deep avalanche of mud.

The authorities don't know where to begin - if they start digging through the mud, it's not stable ground so it could cost lives.

The mud is so deep that even if the rescue crews had been here in time, they wouldn't have been able to dig through.

However, they had given up hope of finding the 380 people missing under the tons of earth covering the area, Kaohsiung county chief Yang Chiu-hsing said.

Instead of trying to excavate the approximately 170 homes in an effort to find the bodies of their occupants, a memorial park would be built on the site, he added.

Thirty-two people are also missing in the nearby village of Liukuei, which was also hit by a mudslide. Six others were killed in the village of Sinfa when a torrent of water cascaded down a mountainside and destroyed their houses.

Over the past few days, 15,400 people have been ferried to safety from the area, including some 2,000 on Thursday alone.

The BBC's Cindy Sui, in Kaohsiung county, says the authorities are confident they can bring out the remaining 1,900 people thought to be stranded there on Friday.

The military has enough helicopters now, our correspondent says, and the weather has improved. Troops are being sent on foot into some steep valleys that are hard to search from the air, she adds.


Taiwan's landscape has been dramatically altered by the typhoon

Many of the worst-affected villages are inhabited by aborigines, who farm the mountainous terrain.

Thousands more people are believed to be stranded in remote settlements elsewhere in southern and central Taiwan.

Officials in the island's south-eastern Taitung county estimated that nearly 3,700 people remained cut off as of Friday morning, the AFP news agency reported, while in central Chiayi county some 9,000 were thought to be stranded.

Reconstruction work

Speaking earlier on Friday, President Ma said that if the 380 people feared buried in Hsiaolin had perished, the nationwide death toll would rise to more than 500.

A woman cries Qishan rescue centre (14 August 2009)

He told a national security meeting that the typhoon had destroyed the homes of 7,000 people and caused agricultural and property damage in excess of $1.5bn (£900m). Reconstruction was expected to cost $3.4bn (£2.05bn), officials said.

Thirty-four bridges and 253 segments of road were destroyed, the ministry of transport said, adding that repairs were expected to take up to three years.

Mr Ma said it was the most severe damage to the island in more than 50 years. An earthquake in 1999 killed 2,400 people.

"While the rescue operation is still going on, we have started rehabilitation and reconstruction work, which is just as pressing as relief efforts but might be even more difficult and cumbersome," he said.

The government has requested from foreign countries prefabricated buildings to help house those left homeless by the flooding and supplies of disinfectant, to try to prevent the spread of disease.

In China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan, companies and charities have raised more than 100m yuan ($14.6m) in donations, the official Xinhua news agency has reported.

Map of area of Taiwan
Qishan - rescue operation centre established here, thousands of troops drafted in to help.
Liukuei - 200 people awaiting rescue from hot spring resort as of Thursday, with another 700 survivors in the area.
Hsinfa - 32 people reported dead, survivors pulled to safety using ropes thrown across river.
Hsiaolin - hundreds feared dead following mudslides the morning after Taiwan's Father's Day.
Taoyuan - residents told to run to higher ground as embankment holding back lake gave way.

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