Landslides kill 36 in Guatemala

Workers move a bus buried by a previous mudslide.

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Guatemalan authorities say at least 36 people have been killed in landslides caused by weeks of heavy rains.

In the worst incident, a hillside collapsed on a crowd of volunteers as they tried to dig out a bus buried by a previous mudslide.

At least 20 bodies have been recovered, but the search for around 40 people still missing has been suspended for fear of further landslides.

President Alvaro Colom has called the disaster a national tragedy.

He visited the scene where rescuers were digging frantically to find people buried in thick mud at kilometre 171 of the Inter-American highway north of Guatemala City.

"This weekend alone, we have seen damage comparable to what we experienced with Agatha", Mr Colom said, referring to a tropical storm that killed 165 people in May.

"It's painful that poor people always pay the price for natural disasters."

Desperate search

Local police officer Pascual Tuy said he was in a group that rushed from the village of Nahuala to help with picks and shovels when they heard vehicles had been buried.

He said volunteers were able to pull several people out of the mud, and were still digging when the second landslide struck.

"The mountain was making a noise like an earthquake but people would not leave" he told the Associated Press. "They were being stubborn and did not get out".

Officer Tuy said he ran for his life and the mud only reached his legs.

Manuel Sohom Ixmata mourns a relative lost in a landslide in western Guatemala Local people are desperate to find missing relatives

Rescue work resumed after the second landslide, but was then suspended because of heavy rain.

The government had already advised people to stay off the roads after 12 people were killed when another bus was engulfed by a mudslide on a different stretch of the same road on Saturday.

More than 100km (65 miles) of the Inter-American highway is closed to all traffic, and many other roads have been blocked, with several bridges destroyed by floods.

Record rainfall

Weeks of heavy rain have saturated Guatemala's mountainous terrain, causing hillsides to collapse suddenly and without warning.

Parts of the country have received their highest rainfall in half a century, according to Guatemala's national meteorological institute.

President Colom said the rains had undone all the reconstruction work completed since Tropical Storm Agatha.

On Saturday he declared a state of emergency and asked congress to approve emergency funds for rebuilding.

He said he would also propose a special tax to help pay for reconstruction, saying there were not enough funds available to deal with the disaster.

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