Kalutara (Sri Lanka) (AFP) - Thousands of Sri Lankan troops battled Monday to get relief supplies to nearly half a million people displaced by the island's worst flooding in well over a decade, which has killed 169 people.
The military said a lull in torrential monsoon rains had allowed it to deploy aircraft, boats and ground troops to evacuate people from flooded areas and deliver food and other essentials.
Almost half a million people have had to abandon their homes after the island suffered its worst flooding in 14 years.
The Disaster Management Centre said 169 people had been confirmed dead, most of them buried by landslides triggered by Friday's intense rains. Another 102 people are listed as missing and 88 are in hospital.
Sri Lanka is regularly hit by flooding at the start of the annual monsoon. But carpenter J. H. Siripala, who lives in one of the areas worst hit, said he had never seen it this bad.
"I have lived in this area for 27 years and we have gone through floods, but never experienced this much water," the 62-year told AFP in Kalutara district on the southwest coast as a navy boat carried him to safety.
"I thought it was my end," he said as he recalled how the water level suddenly rose on Sunday, covering his head, before he was pulled to safety.
Dhanushka Fernando said his house was under eight feet (2.5 metres) of water on Sunday.
"We had floods in 2003 but not this much water," the 28-year-old told AFP.
Military spokesman Roshan Seneviratne said a let-up in the rains had allowed troops to access cut-off villages.
"We are able to access all the affected communities," he told AFP.
He said 1,800 soldiers and 1,100 naval personnel had been deployed to evacuate people and ferry food and other essentials to affected areas.
The flooding is the worst since May 2003, when 250 people were killed and 10,000 homes destroyed after a similarly powerful monsoon.
Nearly 2,000 houses have suffered structural damage or been completely destroyed, according to official figures.
- International aid -
An investigation is under way after an air force transport helicopter crashed during an operation to distribute food to marooned villages in the southern town of Baddegama.
The 11-member crew of the Mi-17 transport helicopter were unhurt.
On Friday an airman was killed when he fell from a helicopter while trying to winch up a marooned man in the island's south.
The government said floodwaters were beginning to recede on Monday but some low-lying areas remained heavily inundated.
All schools in flood-hit areas, including the capital Colombo, will be closed for a week, it said.
Sri Lanka has sought international assistance, with India sending two naval ships laden with supplies over the weekend.
The United Nations said it would donate water containers, water purification tablets and tarpaulins while the World Health Organization will support medical teams in affected areas.
Japan had promised portable electricity generators and a team of experts to help with the relief work, officials said, adding that Pakistan was also in talks with Colombo to send relief supplies. Islamabad recently gave 10,000 tonnes of rice to Sri Lanka to help drought victims.
The meteorological department said Friday's rain ended a prolonged drought that had threatened agriculture. It is forecasting more rain in the next two days.