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Toll from deadly Guatemala landslides rises to 44

The relatives of one of the victims of a lanslide take the coffin to a church for a mass on September 5, 2010 in Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, Solola, 169 kilometers west of Guatemala City. The death toll from landslides in Guatemala rose to 36 on Sunday as the country's President Alvaro Colom declared the disaster a "national tragedy. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Solola, Guatemala (AFP) Sept 6, 2010
The death toll from multiple landslides in Guatemala rose to 44, officials said Monday as rescuers took advantage of a brief window of good weather to search for victims and survivors.

At least 16 people were still missing after a series of landslides, mudslides and wall collapses that followed weeks of heavy rain in the impoverished and mountainous Central American nation, emergency officials said.

There are "43,043 people at risk, 11,495 have been evacuated, 9,160 are in shelters and 56 people have been injured," a statement from Guatemala's National Coordination for Disaster Reduction (Conared) said.

"It's a national tragedy," President Alvaro Colom said as he visited a site where up to 40 people were thought to have been buried alive in a mudslide.

"This weekend alone we have seen damage comparable to what we experienced with Agatha," he added, referring to a tropical storm in May that killed 165 Guatemalans and left thousands homeless.

After a pause overnight as new rains rolled in, rescue crews resumed work at 6:00 am local time (1200 GMT), said Cesar Aguirre, a spokesman for emergency services.

"We hope that the rains let up a bit, and allow us to work," he told AFP.

The rescue effort has been hampered by continuing bad weather associated with the region's rainy season, with operations halting during downpours to ensure workers are not at risk from new landslides.

"It is a very painful thing that poor people end up being the ones hurt by natural disasters," Colom added, urging people only to use the main highway if they had no other option "because there are landslides all over the place."

Conared chief Alejandro Maldonado said that the torrential rains had flooded many homes and left infrastructure including key roads unusable.

And the threat posed by the landslides was not over, with forecasters predicting more rain later Monday.

Late Sunday, a fresh mudslide in northern Guatemala killed one person and injured eight, including two children.

"Top priority at present is dealing with this emergency," Colom said as he toured the devastation and put damages, in one of the poorest countries in the Americas, as high as 500 million dollars.

On Sunday, rescuers dug nine bodies out of a 300-meter (1,000-foot) deep ravine off the main Pan-American Highway, west of the capital Guatemala City.

Fire service spokesman Cecilio Chacaj told AFP some 40 people were believed to have buried there as they tried to help the occupants of five vehicles and a bus swept into the abyss by a previous landslide.

Ten people were killed in a separate incident on Saturday when a bus on the main highway was buried near the town of Chimaltenango. Rescuers managed to unearth 20 survivors.

A landslide also buried a family of four inside their house in the western region of Quetzaltenango, while 13 more people were killed in separate incidents around the country.

In Nahuala municipality, rescuers in bright orange uniforms used shovels, hoes and their hands to unearth the corpses of victims. Among the dead was Manuel Sohon, whose uncle Manuel Ajtzalam wept as he identified him.

Conared said the torrential downpours had caused almost 200 landslides, wall collapses and mudslides across the country.

Three regions in the country's south, Escuintla, Retalhuleu and Suchitepequez, were placed on red alert.

With more heavy rain forecast, authorities have closed part of the Pan-American Highway.

Colom warned he had little funds left to cope with the disaster as the country was still struggling to recover from tropical storm Agatha, which hit the nation in May.

Central America has been lashed by an unusually fierce rainy season this year. The recent bad weather has killed 55 people in Honduras, at least 40 in Nicaragua, nine in El Salvador and three in Costa Rica.

The downpours have come ahead of what is traditionally the worst part of the rainy season, which lasts until October 30.

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