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Rescuers battle rain in search for India landslide victims

Excavators dig through mud at the scene of a landslide in Malin village, in the Pune district of Maharashtra state, on July 30, 2014
Excavators dig through mud at the scene of a landslide in Malin village, in the Pune district of Maharashtra state, on July 30, 2014

Rescuers battled through heavy rains on Thursday in a desperate search for victims of a landslide in western India that buried dozens of homes, with fears the death toll could reach 150.

Twenty three people were confirmed dead and eight pulled alive from the mud and debris in Maharashtra state, but with the rain and strong winds hampering rescue efforts, hopes were fading of finding any more survivors.

"Miracles do happen, we will keep looking, but under current conditions it is very, very bleak," said Alok Avasthy, a National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) regional commandant at the scene.

Relatives told of losing whole families after the hillside gave way early on Wednesday in a remote area of Pune district, sending tonnes of earth and trees crashing onto a village below.

Map showing Pune district in India where more the death toll from a major landslide Wednesday in western India was expected to exceed 150
Map showing Pune district in India where more the death toll from a major landslide Wednesday in western India was expected to exceed 150

"I lost my dad, mum, nephew, my whole family. What will I do? I have nothing left," inconsolable Usha Vilas Gavar, 30, told AFP close to the scene.

Twisted metal utensils and shreds of clothes lay among the debris from the landslide which hit Malin village while most of its residents were sleeping.

The NDRF said 23 bodies and eight survivors have so far been pulled from the site, but rescue efforts were slow going, with heavy machinery halted at one point on Thursday morning because of the rains.

- Massive mud slide -

Avasthy said around 160 people were thought to have been trapped in the landslide, which damaged half of the village's 70 homes.

Villagers look for belongings after a landslide in Malin village in the Pune district of Maharashtra state, on July 30, 2014
Villagers look for belongings after a landslide in Malin village in the Pune district of Maharashtra state, on July 30, 2014

"The mud slide must have been massive and very quick considering it has covered an area roughly the size of a football field with nearly 10-15 feet (3-4.5 metres) of debris," Avasthy said.

H.H. Chavan, Pune district's deputy director of health, said late Wednesday that they expected to eventually recover another 140 bodies.

Dramatic footage of the landslide showed a chunk of hillside giving way on Wednesday with a cascade of mud, rocks and trees, sending up clouds of dust below.

The NDRF said it had mobilised 378 rescue workers to help with the search, although its vehicles had difficulty accessing the site along narrow, damaged roads.

Its dog squad remained locked up in a village health centre on Thursday because the animals were unable to sniff scents in the incessant rains, while workers faced the risk of further landslides.

"The hills are soft due to rains and deforestation," Avasthy told AFP.

- Hamlet disappeared -

The alarm was first sounded when a state bus driver failed to see the usual hamlet dwellings as he drove past the area, according the Press Trust of India news agency, citing a local official.

PTI said the victims were members of a tribal community that survived by paddy farming on hill slopes in the once densely-forested region.

Officials collect information to identify the dead in a temporary mortuary on July 30, 2014 after a landslide in Malin village, in the Pune district of Maharashtra state
Officials collect information to identify the dead in a temporary mortuary on July 30, 2014 after a landslide in Malin village, in the Pune district of Maharashtra state

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described the loss of life as "saddening" on Twitter.

Heavy rains have lashed Maharashtra and other parts of India as a result of the annual monsoon.

While the rains are a lifeline for the Indian economy, with nearly three-quarters of the 1.2 billion-strong population dependent on rural incomes, flooding and building collapses are frequent during monsoon season.

Reports on Thursday said a cloudburst had killed three in the northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, while recent landslips have blocked roads to popular Hindu pilgrimage sites.

The state was hit by a landslide and flooding disaster last year that is thought to have killed nearly 6,000 pilgrims, tourists and others.

An apartment tower under construction came crashing down in the southern city of Chennai late June following heavy rains, killing 61, mostly labourers.

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