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23 dead, 100 missing in Colombia mudslide

by Staff Writers
Medellin, Colombia (AFP) Dec 6, 2010
Emergency crews clawed through huge piles of mud Monday in a desperate bid to rescue more than 100 people missing in a landslide that has claimed at least 23 lives in Colombia.

Antioquia department officials said a wall of mud slid down a sodden hillside on Sunday, burying about three dozen homes.

"We've found 23 bodies," said Antioquia government spokesman Jorge Salazar, as rescue crews continued working at the disaster site near Medellin, the country's second-largest city, some 245 kilometers (150 miles) northwest of Bogota.

Earlier, after seven survivors were pulled from the mud, Justice and Interior Minister German Vargas said "more than 100" were still missing in the area.

Salazar said the search for survivors has benefited from a dry spell, but that it would be called off if any further downpours took place.

"Rescue crews are under orders to evacuate immediately... because there's a risk of more landslides," he added.

Salazar said President Juan Manuel Santos was expected to visit the disaster site when he returns from a visit to New York Tuesday morning and meet with local officials.

Hundreds of rescuers including police, emergency services, soldiers and local residents used their bare hands, shovels and pick-axes to break into the wall of mud in the hillsides above the town of Bello after the worst downpours to hit the country in decades, which have left nearly 200 people dead and 1.5 million homeless.

The tragedy occurred after a hillside perched above Bello's La Gabriela neighborhood gave way after being saturated by weeks of the record rains.

A rescue team looking for survivors was several hundred strong, but hope of finding many survivors has diminished as time wore on, a day after the calamity.

Red Cross operations deputy director Cesar Uruena said emergency personnel worked through the night, beginning late Sunday.

"We are working by hand. We are in the first 48 hours, the period in which all efforts are focused on saving lives," he told AFP.

Men and women wept as they climbed over the earth, rocks and uprooted trees that poured like an avalanche over the homes of their loved ones, as emergency personnel began pulling lifeless bodies from the mud's grip.

Some sat helpless and in solitude on the debris covering their home while armed soldiers and police observed from afar as sniffer dogs were brought in to help search for any survivors.

Yellow-clad rescuers wearing helmets and troops in camouflage combed over the mudslide area and sought entryways into the mud, estimated at some 50,000 cubic meters (1.7 million cubic feet), according to disaster official John Freddy Rendon.

The town's mayor said manual emergency operations would continue through the day, keeping heavy earth-moving equipment at bay so rescuers could dig for survivors.

Many people have fled the area fearing further landslides, with dozens spending the night outdoors covered with blankets, while others took refuge in a temporary shelter in a nearby community center.

Medellin lies in a valley and many poorer neighborhoods with precariously-built houses are stacked up the mountainsides where they are highly vulnerable to heavy weather.

As of last week, the government estimated weather-related damage at more than 300 million dollars.

In neighboring Venezuela to the east, driving rains have triggered flooding and cave-ins that have killed 34 people over the past week, officials said.

The non-stop storms were being blamed on La Nina, a phenomenon in which cooler-than-normal water circulates in the Pacific Ocean around the equator.

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Twenty dead, over 100 missing in Colombia mudslide
Medellin, Colombia (AFP) Dec 6, 2010
Emergency crews clawed through tons of mud Monday in a desperate bid to rescue 105 people missing in a landslide in Colombia that has claimed at least 20 lives. Officials in the Colombian state of Antioquia, said that by 1500 GMT some 20 bodies had been recovered, after a wall of mud on Sunday slid down a sodden hillside, burying about three dozen homes. "So far, we have found just 20 pe ... read more

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