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MANILA (Reuters) - Rescue workers dug out more than 120 bodies from under tonnes of mud and debris in northern Philippines on Friday as dozens of landslides buried villages after a week of relentless rains, officials said.
Scores of towns and villages in the lowlands were flooded as overflowing dams opened their sluice gates to release water. At least 122 were killed by landslides and 13 others have previously been killed by the rains, which started one week ago.
"As of this moment, we have already retrieved 122 bodies," Olive Luces, regional disaster head for the mountain regions, told television. Most of the deaths were in the vegetable-growing Benguet province, and in neighbouring Mountain Province.
"We really have no idea how many people were buried when the landslides happened because it was almost midnight and everybody was asleep," said Loreto Espineli, police chief of Benguet. "Our recovery efforts are slowed down by mud, heavy rains and lack of power."
The rains were brought by Typhoon Parma, which first hit the Philippines last Saturday and has since hovered around the northern part of the main island of Luzon, although it has weakened into a tropical depression.
Besides setting off landslides in the mountains, the rain has swollen rivers and reservoirs, forcing dams to release water and flooding areas downstream. Television pictures showed towns and farmland in the plains transformed into vast lakes, dotted with trees and buildings.
WATER ALL OVER
About 60 to 80 percent of the coastal province of Pangasinan has been flooded and 30,000 people evacuated, said Lieutenant Colonel Ernesto Torres at the NDCC.
"Many of the roads are impassable, under six to eight feet of water and hundreds are marooned on the roofs of their towns," said Butch Velasco, a disaster official in Pangasinan. "The water level has reached the second storey of their homes."
Thousands spent the night on rooftops or scrambling to higher ground.
Provincial Governor Amado Espino told local radio rain and strong currents were hampering rescue efforts. "We're isolated, all our major roads are closed. Even some of our evacuation centres are now flooded. We need all the help."
In Nueva Ecija province to the east, 23 towns and cities were hit by floods, Governor Aurelio Umali said. Roads from Manila to the north were cut off.
The U.S. military diverted troops and equipment from nearby exercises, anchoring a Navy relief ship off Pangasinan and pressing into service helicopters and small aircraft. Philippine military units and equipment were also in the area.
Relief officials estimated total damage at nearly 2 billion pesos ($43 million), including 1.6 billion pesos in lost crops.
The floods come two weeks after a previous storm inundated areas in and around the capital Manila. That storm, called Ketsana, killed at least 337 people and forced half a million from their homes.
About 7.63 billion pesos in crops were damaged, mostly rice about to be harvested, forcing authorities to consider more imports. A further 2.7 billion pesos in infrastructure - roads, bridges and schools - was damaged, disaster officials said.
(Reporting by Manny Mogato and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)