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Rescuers rush to save Philippine landslide victims

RESCUERS dug out six survivors and more bodies buried under landslides that killed nearly 200 people in the storm-soaked northern Philippines, as workers rushed today to clear mountain roads to aid relief efforts.

Damaged road and flooded highways were hampering the search for people trapped in houses buried by mud, but the weather was improving.

The rain-triggered landslides late Thursday and early yesterday were the latest natural disaster to hit the Philippines, raising the death toll to more than 500 since back-to-back storms began pummelling the island Sept. 26, causing the worst flooding in more than 40 years.

Rescue operations were centered in two vast areas - in severely flooded Pangasinan province northwest of Manila, and the worst landslide-hit provinces of Benguet, Mountain Province and the resort city of Baguio, where most of the deaths occurred.

A 17-year-old boy was rescued from the rubble in his home in Baguio late yesterday, and five others were pulled out alive in Mountain Province, said regional civil defense official Olive Luces.

"We are positive that we can still recover live victims. We don't think of the negatives," Luces said. "However difficult it is, our volunteers do not lose hope."

Luces said 120 bodies have been recovered in Benguet, 62 in Baguio and 15 in Mountain Province in the country's Cordillera region on the main Philippine island of Luzon after landslides hit the area Thursday.

The sun was peeking through the clouds over Baguio and volunteers, mostly miners, were taking advantage of the relatively good weather to step up the search for survivors, Luces said. She also called on local communities to help clear debris blocking the roads.

Army engineers were trying to remove mounds of mud and boulders on one road to Baguio. The regional center has been isolated since Thursday's landslides. The Public Works Department was clearing debris on another highway to the city, but an 82-foot (25-meter section) of that mountain road had been washed away, cutting off all traffic, she said.

Mayor Artemio Galwan of La Trinidad township in Benguet province said 78 bodies have been recovered there. He appealed for shovels and other tools as well as portable spotlights to allow volunteers to continue digging at night.

He said the rains and landslides devastated crops in his area, regarded as the country's "salad bowl" for its vegetable farms and strawberry fields.

Water was receding from low-lying provinces south of the Cordillera region, but most of the rice-growing province of Pangasinan northwest of Manila was still submerged. In the provincial capital of Dagupan, floodwater was about waist deep.

Scores of residents in San Manuel town fled in panic early today after rumors spread by text message that the San Roque Dam in the north had collapsed. Officials quickly denied the report and appealed on radio for calm.

Water released from the dam at the height of the downpour caused most of the flooding in Pangasinan and surrounding provinces. A key bridge, one of the doorways to the Cordillera region, also was damaged.

Two US Navy ships, meanwhile, were anchored in the Lingayen Gulf in Pangasinan with Marines and sailors ready to deploy for rescue and relief operations, said Philippine military spokesman Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner.

The US Marines brought with them eight CH-46 helicopters to complement the same number of Vietnam War-era UH-1H helicopters of the Philippine air force to carry relief goods and other supplies to the isolated mountain region.

"The focus is on the Cordillera," Brawner said. "The roads are impassable and the only way to reach Baguio is through air."

He said the helicopters will try to penetrate the fog-shrouded mountains to drop off supplies at the Baguio airport, from where they can be distributed by land.

Last month, Tropical Storm Ketsana left 337 people dead in the worst floods to hit Manila and nearby provinces in four decades. A week later, Typhoon Parma slammed into the northern Philippines. It later weakened into a tropical depression but lingered over the region for about 10 days, dumping more rain.


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