Air force helicopters on Saturday started evacuating dozens of sick and wounded people from the central tea growing region where landslides have killed at least 17 people, officials said.

Thousands of others, some wailing at the loss of their homes and uncertain future, waited on high grounds adjoining the area's main road to be air lifted after local administration asked residents to leave.

"We have been told to leave," said Kumara Samarakoon, who ran a provision store. "Not all will go, but there is fear" of more landslides.

The landslides — triggered by heavy rains — damaged at least 1,600 homes, leaving an estimated 9,000 to 16,000 people homeless across 15 villages near Nuwara Eliya, a mountainous region in central Sri Lanka known for its lush tea gardens, the Defense Ministry said.

"Our forces have redoubled efforts and we have rescued dozens of people," military spokesman, Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said in the capital, Colombo.

Samarasinghe said the army had deployed military helicopters along with 100 soldiers to search for those feared trapped by the landslides, which were triggered Friday following heavy rains. It was unclear how many people were believed buried.

An official at the Disaster Management Ministry said the latest body count stood at 17 and that 15 villagers were missing.

"Seven homes have gone completely under mud," said Namal Rambukpotha. "We have not been able to reach those homes yet."

In the farming village of Padiyapelella, about 1,000 residents took shelter in the local school when the mud slide threatened to damage their homes Friday.

After spending the night there, most of them left the school Saturday for a safer location, trekking along slippery, rock-strewn paths. One man was seen carrying his old mother, who was too weak to walk. Women clutched their children while men carried whatever belongings they could take out of their abandoned homes.

They headed to a main road on higher ground where two air force helicopters evacuated a first group of 36 sick and wounded, said police officer A.M. Jayawardena.