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Twenty dead, over 100 missing in Colombia mudslide

Police officers join soldiers, volunteers and rescue wrokers to remove rubble seeking for survivors after a landslide caused by heavy rains at La Gabriela neighborhood, 5 km north of Medellin, department of Antioquia, Colombia, on December 6 , 2010. At least one person died and 200 are missing after a mudslide triggered by heavy rains. Rains affecting Colombia have killed 180 people and left 1,500,000 affected so far this year, and the intensification of rains in recent days has forced to declare emergency in several regions. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
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 people, and more than 100 are missing," said German Vargas, Colombia's Justice and Interior minister, as he surveyed the disaster scene Monday near Medellin, the country's second-largest city, some 245 kilometers (150 miles) northwest of the capital Bogota.

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 in the search for any survivors.

Rescuers in yellow suits and helmets and troops in camouflage combed over the mudslide 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.

President Juan Manuel Santos hurried home from a regional summit in Argentina to lead the response to the disaster, and was scheduled to visit the scene Monday.

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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