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Dozens still missing in Sri Lanka rubbish heap collapse as death toll rises

The death toll from the collapse of a massive rubbish heap near Sri Lanka's capital has risen to 29, while dozens more are missing and feared to be beneath the rubble.

Hundreds had been living in the working-class neighbourhood on the fringe of the towering dump in Meetotamulla, a town outside of Colombo, when a huge mound collapsed on Friday night during a local new year celebration, damaging at least 150 homes.

By Monday morning, authorities had pulled 29 bodies from beneath the debris, according to a lawyer who has worked with locals to protest against the dump.

Authorities were unsure how many more could still be trapped, but about 30 people were still reported missing, lawyer Nuwan Bopage said.

Soldiers were digging with shovels as relatives of the missing pointed out where their houses once stood amid coconut, mango and banana trees.

Those homes now lay in piles of collapsed concrete walls encased in a wall of mud up to 25 feet high and mixed with plastic bags, broken glass and other rubbish.

Bicycles and auto-rickshaws, the three-wheeled vehicles used as local taxis, were crushed.

Rasika Sanjeewa, 41, his wife, two sons and a daughter had a narrow escape.

Just as he stopped his auto-rickshaw and he and his family stepped to the ground, his daughter said the ground seemed to be moving beneath her feet.

"There was a strong wind from the side of the dump and my daughter shouted the mound is splitting. Suddenly one slice of the mound came crashing down. The whole area was shaking," Mr Sanjeewa said.

Debris blocked their way but they waited and eventually found their way out.

Mr Sanjeewa's family had been heading to their friends' home to celebrate the new year. The home was buried and their friends, a mother and daughter who worked as labourers in the area, had died, Mr Sanjeewa said.

The prime minister over the weekend vowed to shut down the dump, which has absorbed much of Colombo's rubbish for several years as much of the capital has undergone extensive renovations.

As the rubbish piled up, the growing mound began threatening the tiny homes nearby, prompting residents to stage regular protests while complaining of health hazards.

"These people did not choose to live next to a dump. But they brought the garbage in and made this place horrible," said rickshaw driver Dilip Mirmal, 34, whose home was spared while those surrounding were completely subsumed.

"This is a government-made disaster," he said. "I have a mix of feelings, of anger, frustration and sorrow. We have been trying to protest and raise these issues, but no one was listening."

Another 11 people injured in the incident were being treated in a hospital.

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