Nepal landslide kills eight near Kathmandu, sparks flood fears

Paavan Mathema
In this photo released by the Nepalese Army on August 2, 2014, residents stand near damaged houses after flooding near the scene of a landslide near the Sunkoshi River northeast of Kathmandu
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In this photo released by the Nepalese Army on August 2, 2014, residents stand near damaged houses after flooding near the scene of a landslide near the Sunkoshi River northeast of Kathmandu (AFP Photo/Nepal Army)

A massive landslide Saturday in Nepal's northeast left at least eight people dead and dozens missing as officials worked to clear debris blocking a major river and avert the possibility of flash floods.

The landslide struck in the early hours, burying two dozen homes before dumping mud and stones into the Sunkoshi river, northeast of the capital Kathmandu, Prakash Adhikari, press adviser to the prime minister, told AFP.

Police and army officials retrieved eight bodies and airlifted 34 people to safety, including 19 who suffered serious injuries.

"Dozens more are still missing, but it is impossible to find them in the dark," government disaster management head Yadav Prasad Koirala said, adding searchers would resume work at daybreak.

Ten Nepalese and a 46-year-old Belgian national injured in the landslide were flown to Kathmandu for medical treatment, police said. Others were taken to a nearby hospital.

Bruised and bandaged patients, many still in shock, said they were jolted awake by the sound of water slamming into their homes.

Indra Lal Shrestha, who lost his daughter and grandson in the landslide, told AFP: "There were four of us in the house, which was filled with thick muddy water."

"We were all screaming for help, but who was going to help us?" he asked.

When the debris settled, his house was gone.

As doctors treated injuries at Kathmandu's Teaching Hospital, patients recalled an initial thud and the terrifying sound of rocks smashing into the walls.

"There was a loud sound and then we were hit. I don't remember anything after that," said 27-year-old Amar Shrestha.

"When rescuers found me, my foot was stuck, no-one can imagine the amount of mud there," he told AFP.

"I've lost everything."

Debris from the landslide created a 110-metre (120-yard) deep lake, measuring at least three kilometres by 300 metres, which flooded two power stations and a hydropower plant before workers partially cleared the blockage.

- Power stations flooded -

"We have been successful in allowing the water to flow slowly from the blocked area at its natural pace by carrying out small explosions," disaster management official Koirala told AFP.

"This has minimised danger in the upper reaches of the river, but lower areas (below the blockage) are still at risk," Koirala said.

He added officials would wait overnight and check on the river's flow before conducting more small blasts to clear the debris from the area termed a "flood-crisis zone" by the government.

A police official at the disaster scene said electricity lines had snapped, leaving hundreds without power.

"We have shut down the Sunkoshi hydropower project due to flooding, another transmission tower has also been damaged," said Arun Rajoria, deputy general manager of Himal Hydro, which built the plant.

Home ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal told AFP a portion of the Arniko Highway, which connects the Himalayan nation with Tibet, had been closed.

Meanwhile, officials opened the Koshi barrage near the India-Nepal border, to allow water to flow downstream and reduce flood risks.

Scores of people die every year from flooding and landslides during Nepal's monsoon season.

At least 75 people were killed in separate incidents in 2013 when heavy rains triggered floods that struck homes in the country's remote hilly western region and southern plains.

Nepal's landslide came as more than 150 people were feared dead in neighbouring India following a landslide which destroyed a village in western Maharashtra state earlier in the week.