Rescuers carry the body of a victim yesterday after Tuesday’s massive landslide in Rangamati district, Bangladesh. —AP

CHITTAGONG: Rescue workers battled yesterday to reach victims of the worst landslides ever to hit Bangladesh, as the death toll rose to 146, with dozens more still missing. Villagers in some of the worst-hit areas used shovels to try to dig bodies out of the mud that engulfed their settlements as they slept. Authorities say hundreds of homes were buried by mud and rubble sent cascading down hillsides after monsoon rains dumped 343 mm of water on the southeast of the country in just 24 hours.

Disaster Management Department chief Reaz Ahmed said the landslides were the worst in the country's history and warned the death toll would rise as rescuers reached cut-off areas. Firefighters in the district of Rangamati said they had pulled 18 people out from under the mud on Tuesday, but did not have the manpower to reach all the affected areas. "People called us from several places saying people had been buried. But we did not have enough men to send," said Didarul Alam, fire services chief for Rangamati district. "We have been unable to reach some of the more remote places due to the rain. Even in those places we have reached, we have been unable to recover all the bodies."

The army said thousands of troops stationed in the affected districts as part of efforts to quell a long-running tribal insurgency had joined the rescue efforts. "Our soldiers based in all parts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts have participated in the rescue operations," armed forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Rashidul Hasan told AFP. Four soldiers were killed in a landslide on Tuesday and another is missing.

Thousands evacuated

Those caught up in the disaster spoke of the horror that the rains had unleashed. Khodeza Begum emerged from her home just after dawn Tuesday to see the mountainside collapsing in front of her. "As I came out I saw a huge slab of earth rolling down from the hill. Instantly I got all my relatives out of their homes. We survived narrowly," she told a local news website. "My house was buried under mud within moments. I have never seen a disaster like this in my life," she said, adding that 11 people in her village were killed.

Rangamati district chief Manzurul Mannan told AFP 98 people had been killed there and 200 injured, some of them seriously. At least 37 people died in Chittagong, four in Cox's Bazar and seven more in the neighboring hill districts of Bandarban and Khagrachhari, officials said. The latest toll makes this year's disaster deadlier even than a 2007 landslide that killed 127 people in Chittagong. Authorities have opened 18 shelters in the worst-hit hill districts, where 4,500 people have been evacuated, a minister said.

Among the victims were two fishermen who drowned off the coast of Cox's Bazar after their boat apparently capsized. Other trawlers and their sailors were still missing. As rain pounded Teknaf in Cox's Bazar for a third day, police confirmed that a father and daughter were killed after their home was buried by a landslide. The monsoon rains came two weeks after Cyclone Mora smashed into Bangladesh's southeast, killing at least eight people and damaging tens of thousands of homes. South Asia is frequently hit by flooding and landslides in the summer with the arrival of the annual monsoon rains.

But experts say unplanned development and excessive encroachment - such as cutting into hillsides - exacerbates the damaging effects of the monsoon. "It's a backlash effect. Such abnormal acts accelerate the disasters to become more fatal," S M A Fayez, an environmental science professor at Dhaka University, told AFP. More than 200 people were killed in Sri Lanka last month when the monsoon triggered landslides and the worst flooding the island has seen in well over a decade. - AFP