At least 18 people were killed and another 13 were still missing after a huge landslide engulfed homes in western Japan, the government said on Wednesday.
Dozens of houses were buried when a wall of mud thundered down a hillside in Hiroshima overnight, television pictures showed, as rescuers scoured the scene for any signs of life.
“According to the National Police Department, the death toll has reached 18 while 13 others are unaccounted for,” an official at the disaster management office of the Cabinet Office said.
The number of dead rose rapidly from an initial toll of four, although emergency services said it was too early to tell exactly how many people had lost their lives.
“We haven’t assessed the full extent (of the disaster) yet,” said a spokesman for Hiroshima’s fire department.
Rescuers said the victims included a two-year-old child and a 77-year-old woman.
Another emergency services spokesman said several more people were missing, although the number was not yet confirmed.
There are “several spots where people are supposed to be buried alive, and we still don’t know how many people are missing", he told AFP.
At least two reports said a 53-year old rescue worker died during the operation when the hillside collapsed again.
It was not clear if this man’s death was included in the overall toll and there was no immediate confirmation of the reports.
Aerial footage showed several houses buried by sludge, their wooden frames splintered by the weight of the mud.
Torrents of brown water ran off mountains behind the homes and through the wrecked buildings, hampering rescuers’ efforts as they searched for anyone still trapped.
Japanese troops were deployed in response to a request from the local government.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said there would be a sizeable response.
“I have ordered (government officials) to carry out the rescue operation in an integrated manner, aware of the possibility of further rain,” he told reporters in Tokyo.
“I also ordered them to raise the number of Self-Defense Force (military) personnel to several hundred in order to strengthen rescue operations,” he said, adding he would be sending one of his ministers to the site.
Japan’s weather agency warned more heavy rain is on the way to the area, raising the risk of further landslides in places where tonnes of mud have already been displaced.
The archipelago has been battered in recent weeks by unusually heavy rain that has sparked a number of smaller landslides and several floods, some of which have claimed lives.
Despite widespread concreting to shore up hillsides, mountainous and densely populated Japan is prone to this kind of disaster.
In October last year, dozens of people were killed when the torrential rains of a passing typhoon triggered large landslides on the island of Oshima, south of Tokyo. - AFP