'Alive by a miracle,' Colombia landslide survivor tells how mud tore him from his home

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PEREIRA, Colombia, Feb 9 (Reuters) - A survivor of a landslide in central Colombia which killed at least 16 people this week described how the early morning rush of mud and water tore him from his home, as local officials warned tens of thousands could still be at risk.

The Tuesday landslide, which buried part of the La Esneda neighborhood on the border of the cities of Dosquebradas and Pereira, followed heavy rains in the surrounding coffee-growing province.

Drone footage shows a deep, brown gash in the otherwise green hills that loom above the community. Below, roofs are caved in, and clothes and belongings scattered among the debris of what once were homes, all covered in a thick film of mud.

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"It was about a quarter past six when it hit, my family was left trapped there," said survivor Alvaro Alzate, 62, whose father, brother, niece's child and neighbors were killed. "The mud carried me into the street naked, I went down to the avenue in the mud."

His brother had woken him early, Alzate said, which he believes saved his life.

"We're alive by a miracle," said the baker as he observed ongoing rescue operations with surviving relatives, his arms and legs covered in cuts and bruises from the landslide. "It's so hard, it hurts so much."

Thirty-six people were injured and three people remain missing, Colombia's disaster management agency said on Wednesday.

Others may yet be in danger, warned regional environmental official Julio Cesar Gomez, who said tens of thousands of people are in unsafe housing near three area rivers, including people fleeing conflict violence and vulnerable Venezuelan migrants.

"Everything is at risk," he said. "We could easily be talking about 50,000 people who are located in risk areas."

Seven homes were destroyed in the avalanche, the disaster agency has said, and another 69 were evacuated.

Landslides are common in Colombia due to the mountainous terrain, frequent heavy rains and poor or informal construction of houses.

Before the Tuesday landslide, 64 incidents of slides, floods or river overflow had occurred around the country this year, killing seven people, the agency said.

The country's most recent large landslide killed over 320 people in the city of Mocoa in 2017.

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Reporting by Herbert Villarraga Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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