ELANGAPITIYA VILLAGE, Sri Lanka – Heavy rains Thursday pounded the central Sri Lankan region where at least three villages have already been swallowed by mountains of mud, forcing soldiers and police to suspend rescue work. At least 18 people are known to have been killed and hundreds are reported missing in the landslides so far.
Rescue work had resumed early in morning before fresh rains began in the area, but was halted for about an hour as minor landslides made the work dangerous. Torrents of water streamed down the hill on which the three villages of Siripura, Elangapitiya or Pallebage were located at different elevations.
Asked whether rescuers expected to find survivors, army Maj. Gen. Sudantha Ranasinghe said, "I have my doubts," and pointed to an area in Elangapitiya village where 66 houses once stood. "We don't have a trace of any house here. All gone with that landslide. So I have my doubts."
Military spokesman Brigadier Jayanath Jayaweera told reporters in the capital, Colombo, that the army was assessing the situation and would deploy more troops if needed.
Heavy rains have lashed the island nation for several days and officials said the extent of the tragedy was still unclear. The Sri Lankan Red Cross said at least 220 families were unaccounted for.
"The task is to figure out what happened to them," the Red Cross said in a statement, noting that some people may have left after local officials warned earlier this week of possible landslides.
Jayaweera said that the army had so far rescued 156 people trapped by landslides and more than 1,550 people are being sheltered in nine shelters.
Heavy fog, rain, electrical outages and the loose ground have made it difficult to search for survivors. Officials have also warned that, with rain still falling, more landslides could occur in the area.
Villagers said torrents of muddy water, tree branches and debris came crashing down Tuesday around their homes in the three villages in Kegalle district, about 72 kilometers (45 miles) north of Colombo.
"I heard a huge sound like a plane crashing into the Earth," said 52-year-old A.G. Kamala, who had just returned to her house in one of the villages, Siripura, when the landslides hit. "I opened my door. I could not believe my eyes, as I saw something like a huge fireball rolling down the mountain."
Near the village of Elangapitiya — furthest down the hill — soldiers on Wednesday carried bodies to a school, where families waited for news of missing loved ones.
Farmer Hewapelige Lal said he had identified the body of his nephew, but that 18 other family members were possibly buried under the mud. He and his wife had left their home to take fruit to a daughter who lived elsewhere, but at some point his wife turned back.
"That was the last time I saw her," Lal said, sobbing. When he heard of the landslide, he rushed home but found the area covered with thick, heavy mud. "All I could do was scream."
Officials could not give the populations of the villages, but such villages typically have 1,000 to 1,500 residents.
In Elangapitiya alone, where 14 bodies were recovered Wednesday, about 130 people were still missing, according to Maj. Gen. Sudantha Ranasinghe, who was coordinating rescue efforts.
Hundreds of stunned villagers took shelter in four temporary camps set up in schools and a Buddhist temple, where they were being given food, blankets and basic medical treatment.
At the Viyaneliya Temple, about 300 villagers shared a meal of brown bread and curried lentils. Local officials interviewed each one to learn about missing family members and possessions buried under the mud.
Local media said President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited the disaster sites earlier Wednesday.
In Siripura, 70-year-old A.G. Alice said all nine of her children were unaccounted for.
"I don't know what happened to me" after the landslides swept down, she said.
A man said his wife, mother-in-law, son and daughter-in-law were all in his house in Siripura when the landslides hit. "I still can't locate my family," M.W. Dharmadasa said. "I still don't know what happened to them."
The same rains that unleashed the mudslides also caused severe flooding in cities including Colombo, the capital, where tens of thousands of homes were at least partially inundated. Schools were closed due to the bad weather.
Sri Lanka's disaster management center Thursday reported 38 deaths from lightning strikes and smaller landslides elsewhere in the country earlier this week. Nearly 135,000 people have been displaced and are being housed in temporary shelters.
Mudslides are common during the monsoon season. Much of Sri Lanka has been deforested to clear land for agriculture, leaving the countryside exposed.
During heavy rains in December 2014, authorities evacuated more than 60,000 people from thousands of homes damaged or destroyed by floods or landslides. Two months before that, dozens of tea plantation workers were killed when mudslides buried their hillside homes.
AP writer Bharatha Mallawarachi in Colombo contributed to this report.