YANGON (Reuters) - Nearly 100 bodies have been pulled from a landslide near a jade mine in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State, local officials said on Sunday, and hopes are dwindling that any of an estimated 100 people missing will be found alive.
The landslide happened when a mountain of mining debris gave way in the early hours of Saturday in Hpakant, an area that produces some of the world’s highest-quality jade. The mines and debris dump sites are hazardous and deadly accidents are common.
As of 4 p.m. local time (0930 GMT) on Sunday, 97 bodies had been pulled from the landslide, said Tin Swe Myint, head of the Hpakant Township Administration Department.
That number was expected to rise, but it remains unclear exactly how many people may be buried.
“We just don’t know how many people exactly were buried since we don’t have any data on people living there,” he told Reuters by telephone.
“It was just a slum with these... workers living in makeshift tents. Nobody knows for sure how many and where they had come from.”
Workers, many of them migrants from elsewhere in Myanmar, toil long hours in dangerous conditions for little pay searching for the precious stones.
The landslide occurred at around 3 a.m. when many miners were sleeping, according to Ko Sai, a miner who was sleeping at a nearby camp.
It was unclear what triggered the landslide in the mountainous region that is almost entirely off limits to foreigners.
“We just heard a loud noise sounding like thunder and saw that the huge mountain collapsed and a huge wave of rubble was moving and sprawling on a wide area,” said Ko Sai.
“It was just like a nightmare,” he said.
Tin Swe Myint said that rescue efforts were continuing and that heavy machinery was being used, but he was not hopeful survivors would be found.
“I think chances of finding anyone alive are very thin,” he said.
Several companies had dumped mining debris at the 200-acre dump site, he said. The dump was near a mine controlled by Triple One Jade Mining Company, he said.
An official with the Hpakant Township Fire Brigade earlier told Reuters by telephone that an estimated 100 people were still missing.
Much of the jade that is mined in Hpakant is believed to be smuggled to neighboring China, where the stone is highly valued.
According to researchers from environmental advocacy group Global Witness, which published a report on the opaque sector earlier this year, the value of jade production in Myanmar is estimated to have been around $31 billion in 2014.
While most of that jade was destined for China, only $12.3 billion of it was accounted for in Chinese trade data, according to Global Witness.
Writing by Timothy Mclaughlin; Editing by Simon Webb and Nick Macfie, Ralph Boulton