Dozens still missing as Guatemala landslides kill 22

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A massive landslide buried a crowd trying to dig out a bus from deep mud on Sunday, killing at least 22 people with dozens more feared dead, as torrential rains battered Guatemala.

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Emergency workers recovered 22 bodies from the landslide on a major highway northwest of the capital, and they warned it could take two days to dig out all the victims.

“A wall of earth fell on a bus and around 100 local people organized themselves to dig out the victims,” said fire department spokesman Sergio Vasquez. “Then another landslide came along and buried them.”

Workers suspended rescue operations at the site after heavy rain struck the region again, sending people fleeing from the rain-saturated hillsides.

In a separate incident, 12 people were killed on Saturday when a bus was buried in a landslide. Six more people were killed in other incidents on Saturday, raising the weekend death toll to at least 40.

“It’s a national tragedy,” President Alvaro Colom told a news conference, adding that nearly 12,000 people had been evacuated to emergency shelters. “It’s painful that poor people are paying the price of natural disasters.”

Photographs of the bus wrecked on Saturday showed its roof crushed by a huge pile of earth and rock that almost completely covered the vehicle.

More than 30 separate landslides cut the Inter-American Highway, one of Guatemala’s main roads, within a single 30-mile (50-km) stretch, local media reported.

Emergency services officials warned further rain was expected on Sunday and Monday.

Colom appealed to people to stay off the nation’s highways due to the threat of further landslides and said rescue efforts would be suspended if more rain fell in the affected areas.

More than 150 people died in Guatemala in May when Tropical Storm Agatha drenched Central America, triggering landslides.

Record amounts of rain have fallen in parts of Guatemala and southeastern Mexico this year. Thousands of people in the Mexican Gulf of Mexico state of Tabasco have been forced from their homes by flooding.

Water levels behind some dams in the region have risen so high that floodgates have been opened.

Reporting by Sarah Grainger; Writing by Robert Campbell, Editing by Eric Beech