Orphans buried alive in Malaysian landslide

A DEVASTATING landslide buried 20 children and four adults at a Malaysian orphanage yesterday, killing at least five in a natural disaster which one witness described as like being "chased by the Earth".

Last night scores of rescuers were digging with their hands in soil softened by the rain, which had triggered the mudslide, in an effort to find the missing.

The bodies of five boys, aged eight to 17, have so far been recovered. Six more boys and a 30-year-old warden who were critically injured were pulled from the mud and taken to a local hospital.

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Heavy rain is thought to have caused the landslide, which hit the Children's Hidayah Madrasah al-Taqwa orphanage for ethnic Malay Muslim boys in a rural village in the district of Hulu Langat in Selangor state, south of Kuala Lumpur.

Rain was still falling last night and was hampering rescue work by some 200 firefighters, police and local.

"They just had lunch at the tent by the side of the house when two landslides apparently occurred at the same time. The tent collapsed, burying 24 people as they did not have time to escape," district police chief Abdul Rashid Wahab said.

"Rescuers have to dig using their hands and other equipment because the soil surrounding is very soft due to the rain," he said, adding that the search would continue for another nine children and three orphanage staff.

A small stream runs nearby the orphanage, a huge three-storey house at a foothill in the village in Selangor, a rural area of central Malaysia.

The house wasn't damaged but was partly covered in sludge, while several tall trees fell in the landslip.

People in a number of houses near the orphanage have been told to evacuate amid concerns of further landslides, Rashid Wahab said. When the landslide struck at 2.30pm local time, all of the orphanage's residents were in a camp near the building. The debris from the landslide covered the whole camp erected on the hillside.

Mohamad Hambali Ismail, a warden at the orphanage, told local reporters that the children were preparing to receive visitors when the ground shook. "I heard a loud noise. Suddenly the earth was chasing me. I had to run to save myself," Hambali, 34, told the Malay-language Berita Harian newspaper.

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A local politician said the area had suffered heavy rain for two days.

Che Rosli Che Mat, an opposition politician, said that the disaster had occurred while the children had been practising the traditional Malay drums under a tent near a steep slope.

"The landslide happened very fast. Only a few children managed to escape," he said.

The child survivors were aged between 11 and 17 and the adult was a 22-year-old believed to be a worker at the orphanage.

Selangor police chief Tun Hisan Tun Hamzah said that the orphanage had a total of 49 occupants, five of whom were caretakers.

All the residents at the orphanage - both staff and children - were male.

A village mosque was also hit by the landslide, although no-one was believed to have been in the building at the time it struck.

"We understand two landslides occurred within seconds of each other. All of them in the camp were trapped," Tun Hisan said.

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He added that the rescuers included personnel from the fire and rescue department, the local police and the civil defence department.

Rescue operations were ongoing despite the heavy rain, Putrajaya fire and rescue assistant commissioner Morni Mamat said.

Landslides are regular disasters in Malaysia, and mainly occur on its many steep valleys. In December 1993, 48 people were killed in Selangor when an apartment building collapsed following a landslide, and two years later 20 people lost their lives when a landslide landed on a major motorway. Causes of the frequent landslides include the rapid amount of deforestation of land in Malaysia in recent years, with many hills being stripped of trees and then being abandoned, leaving the earth loose underneath.

The government has attempted to reduce the number of landslides in the country by constructing retaining walls in deforested areas, planting more trees along hillsides and making sure houses are built on firm ground.