At least 400 people are feared dead after Typhoon Durian swept across the central Philippines, causing flash floods and burying villages in waves of muddy volcanic ash and huge rocks.

The country's civil defence office said today that 198 people had died, with 260 missing, but the death toll was expected to rise.

"There are a lot of conflicting reports but, looking at the trend, we could have about 300 to 400 people dead by tonight," Richard Gordon, head of the local Red Cross, said in a television interview.

Glen Rabonza, head of the civil defence office, said rescue workers were struggling to pull people from the debris. "Our rescue teams are overstretched rescuing people on rooftops," he said.

The president of the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo, ordered the country's military to help reach people in submerged villages. More than 100 people died and 130 were injured after mudslides struck several villages on the slopes of the Mayon volcano.

"The disaster covered almost every corner of this province - rampaging floods, falling trees, damaged houses," Fernando Gonzalez, governor of Albay province, the worst hit area, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

"It happened very rapidly and many people did not expect this because they haven't experienced mud flows in those areas before. By the time they wanted to move, the rampaging mud flows were upon them."

Reports emerged of residents of Padang village having their clothes ripped off as they were carried away by muddy flows of volcanic ash.

"It's terrible," Noel Rosal, mayor of Legazpi city, Albay's capital, told AP. "Based on our interviews with residents and village officials, more than 100 people were killed or [went] missing. We now call this place a black desert."

The typhoon caused havoc with communications, and details of the extent of the damage remained sketchy. The storm is thought to have made about 11,000 people homeless, as well as knocking out power lines and phone links, and burying roads beneath landslides.

Local officials estimated that more than 22,000 people had been affected by the storm, which by last night was heading to towards the South China Sea and was expected to weaken to a tropical storm before striking Vietnam on Monday.

Durian, named after a pungent local fruit, made landfall yesterday in the island province of Catanduanes, where there are no mountains that could have limited the storm's impact.

The typhoon devastated the island of Marinduque, uprooting trees and ripping the roofs from many homes. "It's the worst in our history," a local congressman, Edmund Reyes, said in a radio interview. "Almost all houses were damaged by the typhoon in the province."

The widespread damage caused by the 20 typhoons and storms to hit the Philippines every year has been blamed on destruction of local forests. Last February landslides killed more than 1,000 residents of a village in Leyte province, and in 1991 more than 5,000 people died in the same region in floods triggered by a typhoon.