Guatemala ends rescue operation after landslide, village to be abandoned

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala has ended rescue operations in a storm-lashed village where scores of people likely died last week in a huge landslide, the country’s national disaster agency said on Tuesday, adding the site is no longer habitable and will be abandoned.

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Storm Eta’s torrential downpours toppled trees, engorged swift-moving rivers, and ripped down parts of a mountainside above the village of Queja in the central Guatemalan region of Alta Verapaz last week.

Ovidio Choc, mayor of San Cristobal Verapaz, the municipality Queja belongs to, said the area would likely be declared a cemetery, and the bodies there not recovered.

“Communities can’t return because the place is not habitable,” Choc said.

Earlier in the day, disaster agency CONRED’s spokesman David de Leon said the search for bodies had been suspended because of dangerous soil conditions for excavation teams. The area has suffered several landslides since the disaster on Thursday.

While President Alejandro Giammattei initially indicated up to 150 people could have been buried in the Queja landslide, CONRED’s own figures show eight confirmed deaths in Queja and another 88 missing people in the village.

Alberto Ical, a community leader in Queja, some 200 km north of the capital, said the villagers want to continue with the search as the local custom is to observe the bodies of the dead family members before burying them.

“What we want is to continue searching and be able to locate everyone, although we know that it will not be possible,” he added.

Nationally, the confirmed death toll from Eta stood at 44 and there were 99 missing people across Guatemala, according to CONRED figures.

The devastating weather front caused by Eta was one of the worst storms to hit Central America in years, spreading destruction from Panama to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico.

Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Aurora Ellis and David Gregorio