After a mountain of garbage collapsed on dozens of homes following a fire near the Sri Lankan capital two days ago, the death toll in the tragedy climbed to 24.
Several heavy earth-moving equipment were digging through the dump in Meetotamulla area in Kolonnawa to find survivors. Hundreds of soldiers have been deployed for rescue operation.
The army said troops of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry, Commandos, Gemunu Watch and Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment were carrying out operations at the location, the Colombo Gazette reported.
Security Forces Headquarters (West) commander Major Gen Sudantha Ranasinghe is leading the rescue operation. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Harsha De Silva said the military is looking for those who might be still trapped under the dump.
He said nearly hundred people have been shifted to temporarily locations and the government will soon begin moving more people who could be under threat. Schools and others facilities will be moved as well.
De Silva said the dumping of garbage at the site has been banned. Ironically, the government had signed agreements a few weeks ago to convert the waste into energy, he said in a post on Facebook.
Police were investigating whether the collapse of the 91 -metre open garbage pile was a natural calamity or a sabotage. A 10-member team of geologists has been sent to the spot. Officials of mining and excavation divisions along with judicial medical officials have been called for investigation.
More than 600 people had to flee in the aftermath of the fire and the collapse. Twenty-four people, including four children, were killed and 11 others injured in the incident, officials said, adding that six persons were still missing.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has apologised to the victims on behalf of the Sri Lankan government. "We had all plans in place to relocate the garbage dump at Meetotamulla. But the tragedy struck before we could put them into action. We apologise for the government's inability to complete the task before the disaster," he said.
The residents near the dump had been protesting for months, demanding that the garbage dump be relocated. The authorities, however, claim that they had given enough warning to the slum dwellers to relocate themselves.
"We had even paid compensation to them to relocate," De Silva said. He said the state will bear the funeral expenses of the dead. The massive garbage caught fire and collapsed on dozens of homes as the residents celebrated the traditional New Year. Police said the true scale of the damage remained unclear.
Sri Lanka's Parliament was recently warned that 23 million tonnes of garbage at Kolonnawa dump was a serious hazard. About 800 tonnes of garbage were added to the dump daily.
"This is not a natural disaster but man made due to the sheer negligence by the authorities concerned," M S Marikkar, the ruling party local member of parliament, said.