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Hopes dim in search for 118 buried by China landslide

3 min

Wenchuan (China) (AFP)

Rescuers dug through earth and rocks for a second day on Sunday in an increasingly bleak search for some 118 people still missing after their village in southwest China was buried by a huge landslide.

Rescuers have pulled 15 bodies from the avalanche of rocks that crashed into 62 homes in Xinmo, a once picturesque mountain village nestled by a river in Sichuan province.

Only three survivors -- a couple and their one-month-old baby -- have been found since heavy rain brought down a side of the mountain early Saturday, officials said.

At least 118 people remain missing, according to the local government -- the Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture of Aba.

The official Xinhua news agency cited geological experts at the site as saying the chance of finding any survivors "was really slim".

Qiao Dashi, the surviving baby's father, said he had woken up after 5:00 am to change his crying son's diaper when he "heard a big noise coming from the back".

"The house shook," he told state broadcaster CCTV from his hospital bed. "Rocks were in the living room. My wife and I climbed over, took the baby, and got out."

"I have superficial injuries. Overall, I'm okay. But psychologically, it's hard. The entire village, with dozens of families, was flattened," he said, with a bandage around his head.

Rescuers with lights on their helmets and sniffer dogs searched for people through the night as lamps illuminated the grey rubble, according to images on state media.

Excavators removed debris as the search continued on Sunday morning. Some 3,000 workers with life-detection instruments were taking part in the search, Xinhua said.

The landslide blocked a two-kilometre (one-mile) stretch of river and 1.6 kilometre of road.

- Quake 'weakened' mountain -

No sign of the village could be seen in aerial footage, which showed a grim and grey rock-strewn landscape covering the area where it once existed by a river.

"It's the biggest landslide in this area since the Wenchuan earthquake," said Wang Yongbo, one of the officials in charge of rescue efforts, referring to the disaster that killed 87,000 people in 2008 in a town in Sichuan.

Xu, the deputy governor, said there had been 142 tourists visiting the village on Friday but that none of them were buried.

Local police captain Chen Tiebo said the heavy rains that hit the region in recent days had triggered the landslide, burying the village under several tonnes of rock.

"It's a seismic area here. There's not a lot of vegetation," Chen said. Trees can help absorb excess rain and prevent landslides.

Tao Jian, director of the local weather service, told CCTV that the 2008 earthquake had "weakened the mountain" and that even a small amount of rain could provoke a geological catastrophe.

- Past disasters -

President Xi Jinping called for rescuers to "spare no effort" in their search for survivors and prevent more disasters.

More than 100 people living close to the landslide were being evacuated, Xinhua reported.

Landslides are a frequent danger in rural and mountainous parts of China, particularly at times of heavy rains.

At least 12 people were killed in January when a landslide crushed a hotel in central Hubei province.

More than 70 were killed by a landslide in the southern commercial hub of Shenzhen in December 2015, caused by the improper storage of waste.

One of the deadliest landslides took place in 1991, when 216 were killed in southwestern Yunnan province.

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