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Sri Lanka mine fears as floods recede


Unexploded mines planted during Sri Lanka's Tamil separatist war may have shifted during recent floods, officials said Sunday, as residents started to return to their badly-damaged homes and farms.

More than one million people were initially displaced in the flooding, with the east of the island worst affected by a week of unusually heavy monsoon rains.

The government's disaster management centre in Colombo said 38 people were confirmed dead with another four missing, as water levels dropped in some areas and residents ventured back home to survey the devastation.

"Floods and receding waters may unearth mines and explosive remnants of war and carry explosives from contaminated areas into areas thought to be safe," the United Nations said in a situation report.

It warned that local authorities had advised residents and aid workers to keep alert for shifted mines, and added that mine clearance agencies were deciding whether areas needed to be re-surveyed after the flooding.

Years of fierce fighting in the east of the island ended in July 2007 and the army says it has cleared the vast majority of mines from the area, though no exact figures are available.

"There is a possibility that undetected mines could have shifted during floods and moved downstream," military spokesman Ubaya Medawala told AFP. "But we haven't had any mine casualties in the eastern regions in recent times."

A military offensive finally ended the decades-long war in 2009 when troops defeated Tamil Tiger rebels who had once controlled one-third of Sri Lanka. Both sides often accused each other of indiscriminately deploying mines.

Many of the flood victims had only recently been resettled after the war, while some had also seen their livelihoods wrecked by the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Pradeep Kodippili, spokesman for the disaster management centre, said that the number of people in state-run welfare centres had dropped to 241,000 on Sunday, down from 360,000 a day earlier.

"There had been a few showers in a few places in the east on Saturday but overall the water levels are going down," Kodippili said. "The number of welfare camps is now down to 435 (from 633 on Friday)."

Students dried their school books in the sun after the rains flooded over 80 percent of the rice-growing district of Polonnaruwa.

An agricultural official in Polonnaruwa told AFP by telephone that thousands of cattle and chickens were lost in the floods.

Officials have estimated that about a fifth of all rice fields on the island were affected by the deluge, leading to fears of food shortages and price hikes in the coming months.

Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said medical teams had been rushed to flood-affected districts to prevent an outbreak of water-borne diseases in crowded relief centres.

"We were concerned about disease, especially as the water started going down," Amaraweera told AFP. "We are extremely lucky we have the situation under control. Maintaining hygiene at camps is a priority."

Sri Lanka depends on monsoon rains for irrigation and power generation, but the seasonal downpours frequently cause death and property damage.

Several international aid agencies along with the European Union and the governments of India and the United States have helped with emergency supplies.

Some 3,000 soldiers have been deployed to help with the relief efforts, along with trucks and air force helicopters.

Weather conditions improved on Sunday, but the meteorological bureau in Colombo said there was a possibility of further rains.

The island's two main monsoon seasons run from May to September and December to February.