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Sierra Leone fears further disaster amid mass burials for mudslide victims


Family of victims in Regent wait to identify their bodies in Freetown (Manika Kamara/AP)

Family of victims in Regent wait to identify their bodies in Freetown (Manika Kamara/AP)

Family of victims in Regent wait to identify their bodies in Freetown (Manika Kamara/AP)

Sierra Leone's government has hired 600 grave diggers for the burials of hundreds of mudslide victims, officials said, as some residents were told to evacuate one mountainside amid fears the rainy season could unleash further disaster.

At least 350 people are confirmed dead after Monday's flooding and mudslides in and around the capital Freetown, according to the government's chief pathologist Dr Owiss Koroma.

Burials have begun and each person will be buried individually in a dignified manner, said the deputy minister of information and communications Cornelius Deveaux.

Graves were dug in a cemetery dedicated to victims of the Ebola outbreak that ravaged the West African nation in 2014-15, killing thousands.

Some 600 people are thought to remain missing after the mudslides as anguished family members and rescue workers dig through tons of mud and debris, at times with their bare hands.

A third of the dead were children.

At the city's overwhelmed Connaught Hospital morgue, many bodies were too mangled and decomposed to be identified.

With rain forecast for the coming week, the threat of further mudslides remained.

The Office of National Security said a crack has opened on the side of a mountain where residents have been asked to evacuate.

The main focus is getting people away from areas still under threat, said Zuliatu Cooper, the deputy minister of health and sanitation.

"The rains are still pending and there is a possibility that we will have another incident," he said.

"We would rather have structures falling down without people in them."

Thousands of people have lost their homes in impoverished, low-lying areas of Freetown and surrounding settlements.

Video on Thursday showed multi-storey concrete homes that had been torn apart, their metal reinforcements tangled like threads.

The devastation was stark, with intact homes and lush vegetation standing next to raw, stripped-bare hillsides whose tops were shrouded in clouds as rain continued to fall.

Recovery workers picked their way through the debris that included the torn-apart remnants of daily lives: stools, abandoned shoes.

Grieving survivors said they were haunted by thoughts of their lost family members.

"Last night I could not sleep" thinking of a daughter, resident Tenneh Bull said.

"Even now I'm still thinking of her; thoughts of her death is lingering."

Sierra Leone has pleaded for international assistance, while Amnesty International issued a statement accusing the government of failing to learn from similar incidents in the past.

"Due to a lack of regulation and insufficient consideration for minimum standards and environmental laws, millions of Sierra Leoneans are living in dangerously vulnerable homes," said Makmid Kamara, the group's deputy director of global issues.

Many poor areas around the capital are near sea level and have poor drainage systems, which makes flooding worse during the rainy season.

Freetown is also plagued by unregulated construction of large residential houses in hilltop areas.

Deforestation for firewood and charcoal is another leading contributor to flooding and mudslides.