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ATTAPEU, Laos (AP) — Rescuers searched Wednesday for scores of villagers left missing when part of a newly built hydroelectric dam broke in southeastern Laos, flooding the surrounding countryside and killing at least 24 people, officials said.
Thousands of people lost their homes when the South Korean-built dam gave way on Monday, flooding surrounding villages.
Hundreds took shelter in nearby towns, traveling by bus and pickup trucks and sleeping on plastic sheeting.
"The water came so quick we just left the house and ran away," said Phon Vuongchonpu, whose family of 12 fled as the floodwater rose to roof level. "We've lost everything: motorbike, furniture our cows and pigs."
Bounyong Phommachak, a Red Cross official, said 24 bodies had been recovered and 96 people were officially listed as missing. He said by phone that about 6,600 people had been displaced from their homes.
China's state news agency, Xinhua, which maintains one of the very few foreign news bureaus in Laos, reported that Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith said at a news conference that 131 people were missing and the homeless totaled 3,060. He did not give a death toll.
The discrepancies in the tolls could be due to difficult communications and heavy rains in the area which have hampered rescue efforts.
Photos and videos posted on social media showed people sitting on rooftops to escape the surging water, while others were carried to safety or rescued by boat.
One of five auxiliary earth-fill dams at the project began visibly weakening on Friday, said Korea Western Power, one of two South Korean partners in the hydroelectric project.
SK Engineering & Construction, the other Korean joint venture partner, said the top of the dam was swept away Sunday as workers were struggling to control the damage amid heavy rain. The situation worsened on Monday as water cascaded out of the reservoir, flooding seven out of 12 villages in the area, SK E&C said. It was helping to evacuate and rescue residents and sent its president and a team of 30 people to the disaster zone.
Continued heavy rain and strong winds forecast for the area could hinder rescue efforts, and risks from flooding persisted in the mountainous region. A report by the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission said storms had caused water levels along the river to rise by 3-5 meters (9-15 feet) in the past week.
Provincial authorities issued a call for emergency aid, and residents in Paksong were streaming to the evacuation shelter bringing food, as doctors attended to those needing help.
"I feel safe here, but worry for my husband and son who are still in the village," said Tem Namsakhunpiraded, who escaped the floodwaters with three of her children and a 6-month-old grandchild.
The International Red Cross said food was a concern because village food supplies were drenched in the flooding. It was arranging for water purification units to be sent to the area to ensure supplies of clean drinking water.
The presidential office in South Korea said President Moon Jae-in had ordered an emergency relief team to help with the disaster.
The $1.02 billion project encompassing several river basins in a remote corner of southeastern Laos is the first hydroelectric dam to be built by a South Korean company, and it was unclear how severe the damage would be to the overall plan. The dam was due to begin operating in 2019, with 90 percent of the power generated going to Thailand.
Shares of companies affiliated with SK E&C sank on Wednesday on concerns over potential costs for compensation and other financial setbacks from the disaster.
Laos has dozens of hydroelectric projects under construction and plans for sales of power to neighboring countries, now accounting for about a third of its exports, to grow substantially.
But dam building along the Mekong River and its tributaries, including those affected by this disaster, has raised concerns over environmental impact and other problems.
International Rivers, a nongovernmental group generally critical of such projects, said the catastrophe showed the need to improve warning systems.
"With over 70 hydropower projects currently built, under construction and planned across Lao PDR — most of them owned and operated by private companies — authorities must immediately review how dams are being planned, designed and managed," the group said in a statement.
Associated Press writers Tong-hyung Kim and Youkyung Lee in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.
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