SIJERUK, Indonesia (Reuters) -Indonesian rescuers searched on Friday for more bodies buried under tons of mud after massive landslides on Java island while helicopters flew food and medicine to some villagers still cut off.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said he would investigate whether environmental degradation had caused the disasters this week. The combined official death toll stands at 120.
Soldiers and police used excavators to clear mud and logs off hundreds of flattened homes after torrential rains sent landslides crashing into several villages.
Rescue officials said their efforts were being hampered by a lack of equipment, thousands of onlookers and those who lost their homes converging on the sites.
Meteorologists have predicted more heavy rains for the country in the coming days.
Officials said they had found 43 bodies so far at Sijeruk village in Central Java province, after a pre-dawn landslide on Wednesday.
Arif Sudaryanto, head of the search and rescue agency in nearby Banjarnegara, said based on residents’ reports an estimated 40 people were still buried, much less than the hundreds some officials said they feared had died.
In neighboring East Java, rescuers have found 77 bodies from several villages hit by landslides and floods on Sunday.
Arifin Muhaji of the Indonesian Red Cross told Reuters that helicopters were being used in East Java because some villagers were difficult to reach after bridges were washed away.
“We have distributed tents, hygiene kits and food to them. Military helicopters are carrying the injured out,” he said.
Speaking near the site of the East Java disaster, Yudhoyono promised action.
“We will look in-depth at what has caused these landslides and floods, whether it is the stripping of forest or the destruction of forest,” Yudhoyono said in remarks carried on El Shinta radio after he visited some villagers made homeless.
Floods and landslides are common in Indonesia, especially at this time of the year during the wet season. Many landslides are caused by illegal logging or the clearing of farmland that strips away natural barriers to such disasters.
Officials have blamed rains for the Sijeruk landslide as the village lies at the foot of a tree-covered hill. Mud up to 20 feet high encased the remains of many homes, although not all were hit by the debris.
But logging has come under the spotlight around the East Java villages. Most residents there lived on coffee plantations and river banks where many trees had been felled.
Meteorologists had predicted heavy rain in the coming days, raising fears of more landslides and floods, Red Cross official Muhaji said.
The Indonesian Red Cross had put 50,000 volunteers on standby across Indonesia, he added.
Flooding and small landslides have damaged roads and bridges this week in other parts of densely populated Java island, where 130 million of Indonesia’s 220 million people live.
Sijeruk lies about 220 miles east of Jakarta, while the East Java landslides occurred around 500 miles east of the capital.