YANGON - Rescuers in northern Myanmar Sunday said they were confident only a handful of people are missing in a jade mine landslide, refuting local reports that as many as 50 might have been buried.
A wall of rocks, mud and debris careered down a hillside on Friday afternoon in Hpakant, Kachin State, the war-torn area that is the epicentre of Myanmar's secretive billion dollar jade industry.
More than 100 people were killed in the same area in a landslide last month and locals feared dozens of workers might be buried in the latest accident.
But officials involved in the rescue said they had only been notified of a handful of missing people and have yet to recover any bodies.
"Three men have been reported to us as missing," a duty police officer in Hpakant told AFP, asking not to be named.
"We are not sure whether they were buried in the dump because we haven't found any dead bodies yet." The state run Global New Light of Myanmar Sunday reported the same figures.
"Relatives of the three people informed us that three people have not yet returned home since the accident happened," the paper quoted Tin Swe Myint, head of the Hpakant Township Administration Office, as saying.
He added that the landslide took place after most workers had finished work and unlike last month's tragedy had not engulfed a row of shanty houses.
However a second police officer warned it was still too early to say how many have been caught up in the landslide.
"We have no idea how many might be buried there," local officer Thet Zaw Oo told AFP by phone.
Myanmar's shadowy and poorly regulated jade trade is enormously dangerous with landslides a frighteningly common hazard.
Those killed are mainly itinerant workers who scratch a living picking through the piles of waste left by large-scale industrial mining firms in the hope of stumbling across an overlooked hunk of jade that will deliver them from poverty.
Myanmar is the source of virtually all of the world's finest jadeite, a near-translucent green stone that is enormously prized in neighbouring China, where it is known as the "stone of heaven".
The Hpakant landscape has been turned into a moonscape of environmental destruction as firms use ever-larger diggers to claw the precious stone from the ground.
But while mining firms - many linked to the junta-era military elite - are thought to be raking in huge sums, local people complain they are shut off from the bounty.