By Anis Ahmed
DHAKA, June 12 (Reuters) - Rescuers dug out 20 more bodies and continued searching for more on Tuesday as heavy rain caused havoc in the Bangladesh port city of Chittagong, officials and witnesses said, and the country's total flood-related deaths neared 130.
"So far, at least 102 bodies have been recovered from dozens of homes buried under tonnes of mud following the landslides on Monday," one rescuer in Chittagong said.
"The deeper we dig down, there are more corpses," he told Reuters by telephone.
Disaster management officials said they feared the death toll would be higher as a search by troops, firefighters, police and volunteers was intensified after the rains had eased and the water started receding.
Two women were buried alive in a separate landslide in Bandarban hill district, southeast of Chittagong, on Tuesday.
The rainstorms killed at least 15 people, including five in western Jhenaidah district, on Monday. And 10 others were killed by lightning across the country on Tuesday, officials said.
Officials and witnesses in Chittagong said the deaths were caused mostly by landslides and the collapse of ramshackle dwellings in the city of nearly 5 million.
"(It) looks like a sea of mud as I move around places with strings of homes buried under heaps of clay and debris," said an army officer helping the rescue operation.
"It needs a lot of effort to pull out the dead. It's a very sad experience," he added.
Authorities have engaged excavators to remove the mud to get the bodies exhumed quickly, before a fresh spell of rain could hit, as has been forecast by the weather office.
The flooding was so extensive that survivors were having difficulty finding dry ground to bury the dead, officials said.
Heavy rain also pounded Cox's Bazar, 100 km (60 miles) away, where lightning had killed eight people since Monday afternoon. Local officials said the flooding was getting worse every hour.
A Chittagong survivor said Monday's landslides struck so quickly nobody had time to react.
"The hills just came crushing down on us," one said.
"It looks like we are living in a ghost city," a rescuer said.
Officials and rescuers blamed the landslides partly on residents clearing trees and other vegetation to build homes despite warnings by environment experts.
Fakhruddin Ahmed, head of the army-backed interim government, visited the disaster hit areas and vowed to take legal actions against those responsible for felling the trees and cutting of hills for developing housing estates.
"Whoever is found guilty... will be punished," Fakhruddin said.
Most Chittagong roads were still covered by mud and sand on Tuesday from collapsed hills, halting most highway transports. But trains and flights to and from the city have resumed, officials said. Port operations also resumed partially.
Some rivers had swollen beyond danger levels, including the Khowai in northeastern Habiganj where bank erosion made hundreds of families homeless.
Millions living on the banks of other rivers were also threatened and the prospect for relief looked bleak with more rain forecast across the country -- particularly in hardest-hit Chittagong and other hilly areas.
"The disaster caught us unawares," said Mokhlesur Rahman, Chittagong's divisional commissioner.
Meteorological officials said the rain marked the onset of the annual monsoon season -- which lasts until mid-September -- but was unusually heavy because of the influence of a storm in the Bay of Bengal.Large areas of the Bangladesh coastline have been submerged under 3-4 feet (90-120 cm) of water because of a moderate tidal surge triggered by the storm, officials said. (Additional reporting by Nizam Ahmed, Nazimuddin Shyamol and Nurul Islam)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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