Japan rescue work continues after deadly landslides, 20 missing

TOKYO, July 4 (Reuters) - Rain hampered Japanese rescuers seeking 20 missing people on Sunday after landslides triggered by torrential rains hit the central city of Atami, killing two women, a local city official said on Sunday.

A total of 19 people were rescued, with 2 injured, and about 130 buildings were affected after floods, landslides and cascading mud collapsed and half-submerged houses on Saturday in the seaside city 90 km (60 miles) southwest of Tokyo, Yuta Hara, a spokesman for Atami city hall, told Reuters by phone.

"I just wanted to cry (when I saw what had happened)," said Naoto Date, a 55-year-old actor who returned to his hometown around 03:00 a.m. Saturday (1800 GMT on Friday) to check the damage.

"That area is in a valley between the mountains and there's a small river flowing through it. Above that small river there's a steep slope and the mudslide rushed down the slope and it became a river," Date said.

"As many elderly people were living there, the thought that there might be people who failed to escape from the disaster makes me really sad," he said.

The floods are a reminder of the natural disasters - including earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunami - that plague Japan, where the capital Tokyo is to host the summer Olympics starting this month.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga asked people in the affected areas to remain on alert and take precautions after he and cabinet ministers met on Sunday to discuss the disaster and heavy rain in the central and eastern Japan.

Some 700 people from the Shizuoka prefectural police, firefighters and Japan's military continued their search and rescue efforts, but their operations have been interrupted twice due to a risk of ground loosening and warnings of secondary damage from rain, Atami's Hara said.

In the affected area where intermittent rain continued, about 387 people have been evacuated as of 11:00 a.m. (0200 GMT) on Sunday, Hara said.

Heita Kawakatsu, governor of Shizuoka prefecture, told a news conference the development of residential areas near the disaster-hit area may have reduced the mountain's ability to retain water and caused the disaster, Kyodo news agency said.

"The prefecture will examine the causal relationship between the two factors," Kyodo quoted Kawakatsu as saying.

The landslides occurred around 10:30 a.m. (0130 GMT) on Saturday in Atami, which is home to hot spring resorts and situated on a steep slope into a bay. The water, mud and debris are believed to have flowed along a river for about 2 km (1.2 miles) to the sea, local media said.

Local TV aired footage of collapsed and half-submerged houses. Social media images showed partially submerged cars and rescue workers wading through waist-high water with a small life raft.

Reporting by Yuka Obayashi and Irene Wang; Editing by William Mallard, Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Elaine Hardcastle

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