/ 24 July 2007

About 60 feared dead after Indonesian floods

Rescue teams struggled on Tuesday to reach parts of Indonesia’s Sulawesi island where about 60 people were feared dead and 8 000 displaced by landslides and floods caused by days of torrential rains.

Days of heavy downpour have caused landslides and floods up to three metres high, submerging hundreds of homes in 11 villages in the Central Sulawesi province, which lie about 1 700km north-east of the capital, officials said.

As rescue efforts continued, the picture on the ground in the remote area remained confusing.

”Based on our latest data, 57 bodies have been retrieved, while 23 are still missing,” Frets Abast, coordinator of provincial rescue teams, told Reuters by telephone.

Rustam Pakaya, head of the health crisis centre in Jakarta, said that according to his tally 13 bodies had been retrieved and about 36 were still missing. He said, however, there were reports of another 10 bodies being found.

Bad weather and difficult access was hampering rescue efforts in the region, where six villages had been cut off by the floods, he added.

”About 8 000 have been evacuated, but many thousands are still in the area and need to be moved,” said Setio Sutarmo, an official with the country’s national coordinating body for disaster management.

”Yesterday [Monday] we only had 60 rescuers from the local search and rescue unit and the police. Back-up is on the way, but it takes time to reach the area.”

Abast said a team of doctors and government officials with medicine and food had arrived in the nearest village but had problems reaching the worst-hit areas as bridges had been washed away by floods.

He said diarrhoea and skin problems had started to hit the displaced, sheltering in school buildings and mosques.

Deadly landslides occur frequently in Indonesia, where tropical downpours can quickly soak hillsides where years of deforestation often means there is little vegetation to hold the soil.

Central Sulawesi is also one of Indonesia’s key cocoa growing areas. The South-east Asian country is the world’s third largest producer of cocoa beans. – Reuters