Thu, 30 Jan 2003

20 killed, dozens missing in Garut landslides

Yuli Sri Wahyuni, The Jakarta Post, Garut, West Java

At least 20 people have been killed, and dozens of others are missing and feared dead after landslides triggered by torrential rains swept through three villages in the West Java town of Garut, officials and residents said on Wednesday.

The disaster also injured more than 100 people in the villages of Mandalasari, Karangmulya and Karang Tengah in Kadungora subdistrict as mud and rocks from Mount Mandalawangi buried at least 121 houses.

Twelve other homes in Mandalasari were razed by fire as the landslides knocked over kerosene lamps.

Hundreds of residents in the affected villages and nearby areas took shelter in schools, mosques and other public buildings.

The landslides also cut off railway traffic linking Jakarta to cities in Central and East Java via the southern coast railroad, railway officials said.

Police, local residents and rescue workers aided by sniffer dogs used spades and shovels to search for at least 30 other people feared to be buried under the debris.

Priangan Police chief Sr. Comr. Tjetjep Lukman said it was difficult to bring in excavators for the search and rescue operations because the villages were located in an elevated area.

Residents were asleep when the landslides swept through their homes at around 2 a.m. early Wednesday.

Anda, a 60-year old local villager, said the landslides followed rains accompanied by lightening, which started at around 6 p.m. on Tuesday. This forced locals to stay home, he added.

As the heavy rains continued until night, thunder sounded along with cries of "Allahu Akbar...Allahu Akbar (God is great)" at around 10 p.m., he said.

"The only thing that I thought of at that time was my family's safety. I don't remember what happened to our household goods such as the TV," said Ujang Dedi, 24, another local survivor.

He and local residents admitted that they had long feared a landslide would take place in their villages due to deforestation on Mount Mandalawangi.

Rachmat Sudjana, secretary of the Garut administration, claimed authorities had warned local villagers of possible landslides.

But the problem was that the residents refused to leave the area because they had been living there a long time, he added.

Rescuers said many of the 20 people dead could not be identified because they sustained serious injuries after being buried by mud and rocks.

Garut Regent Dede Satibi and other local officials blamed the landslides on deforestation on Mount Mandalawangi, where illegal logging continued unchecked.

Most of the hilly areas have been cleared by villagers to open new farming plots and plantations, he was quoted by the Antara news agency as saying.

Garut Police chief Sr. Comr. Adrianus Tumiwang echoed Dede's remarks, saying illegal logging was rampant.

"We will summon those responsible for the mountain management to question them over the illegal logging. We will take legal action against them if there is enough evidence," he added.

Flooding and landslides have killed up to 50 people on several islands across the archipelago since the rainy season began late November.

The worst landslide plagued the East Java town of Mojokerto in December when mud and rocks buried Pacet hot springs, a local resort, killing at least 26 people.

Most of the disasters have been blamed on deforestation due to illegal logging.