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Foreign aid reaches flooded Sri Lankan capital, 71 dead

AFPAFP 21/05/2016 Lakrowan Wannisrachchi

Sri Lankan volunteers evacuate residents by boat following flooding in the Colombo suburb of Kaduwela on May 20, 2016

Sri Lankan volunteers evacuate residents by boat following flooding in the Colombo suburb of Kaduwela on May 20, 2016
© Provided by AFP

Foreign aid began arriving in Sri Lanka Saturday, bringing help to half a million people forced out of their homes by heavy rains and landslides that have killed at least 71 in a week of extreme weather wreaking havoc in South Asia.

As the heaviest rains in a quarter of a century battered Sri Lanka, Cyclone Roanu barrelled into the Bangladesh coastline leaving six people dead and forcing the evacuation of 500,000 as it unleashed winds as strong as 88 kilometres (54 miles) per hour and heavy downpours.

Torrential rains have deluged Sri Lanka since last weekend, triggering huge landslides that have buried victims in up to 50 feet (15 metres) of mud and left 127 people missing.

As aid began to arrive Saturday on a military plane from India and a commercial flight from Japan, Sri Lankan authorities said their priority was now preventing diseases such as diarrhoea, with many areas still under water.

"We have sent a large number of doctors and nursing staff to ensure there is no outbreak of waterborne diseases," Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne told AFP.

In Colombo, residents clung to ropes as they battled to cross torrents of water pulsing through the streets of the flooded capital, with some forced to take shelter in rickshaws.

The Indian government has provided inflatable boats, outboard motors, diving equipment, medical supplies, electricity generators and sleeping bags, officials said.

The first of two Indian naval ships arrived Saturday at the port in Colombo, while Australia and the United States have made cash donations to help victims.

Floodwaters in parts of the capital subsided slightly overnight, officials said, but heavy downpours on Saturday prevented many from moving back to their homes on the banks of the Kelani river.

"Colombo did not receive any significant rain last night and the water levels of the Kelani went down slightly," Disaster Management Centre spokesman Pradeep Kodippili told AFP.

"But there were showers upstream and we are worried that the water levels can rise again in a day."

- Buddhist holiday -

Nearly 300,000 people were staying in about 500 state-run relief centres Saturday, which also marks the Buddhist holiday of Vesak, while a further 200,000 people were staying with friends or family.

Officials said there was a fresh landslide in the worst-hit central district of Kegalle, but that no casualties were reported because the area had been evacuated.

The country's influential Buddhist clergy urged the faithful to divert at least half of the money spent on holiday celebrations to help flood victims.

"There are lots of people who have lost their homes, some have only the clothes they are wearing," top Buddhist monk Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana said.

"Consider this your meritorious deed to celebrate Vesak."

Vesak celebrations were muted Saturday in Colombo compared with previous years when the entire city was decorated with lanterns and coloured lights.

President Maithripala Sirisena called on Sri Lankans to provide shelter and donate cash or food to flood victims as offers of assistance came in from overseas.

The accommodation booking website listed at least 29 places offering free lodging for anyone affected by the floods in Sri Lanka.

Disaster management officials said there had been a huge outpouring of sympathy for victims with donations of food, clothing and dry rations.

The meteorological department says the rains were caused by a depression in the Bay of Bengal, ahead of the arrival of the southwest monsoon.

Around 22 of Sri Lanka's 25 districts have been affected by the rains, according to disaster officials.

Almost a third of residents have been moved from the low-lying capital, which has a population of about 650,000.

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