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President Higgins extends sympathy to Colombia as mudslide death toll tops 200

Hundreds more are injured or missing.

Soldiers rescue landslide victims in Mocoa
Soldiers rescue landslide victims in Mocoa
Image: Xinhua SIPA USA/PA Images

MUDSLIDES HAVE KILLED least 206 people and left hundreds injured or missing after destroying homes in southern Colombia, officials have aid.

They were the latest victims of floods that have struck the Pacific side of South America over recent months, also killing scores of people in Peru and Ecuador.

In the southwestern Colombian town of Mocoa, the surge swept away houses, bridges, vehicles and trees, leaving piles of wrecked timber and brown mud, army images from the area showed.

The mudslides struck late on Friday after days of torrential rain in the Amazon basin area town of 40,000.

Áras an Uachtaráin said President Michael D Higgins has written to President Juan Manuel Santos to express his sympathies to the victims, their families and all those affected by the tragedy.

Higgins recently made an official visit to Colombia, during which he had bilateral meetings with Santos. Earlier this month, the President also wrote to the President of Peru, following floods there in which tens of thousands of people lost their homes.

Colombian Red Cross chief Cesar Uruena said: “The latest information we have is that there are 206 people confirmed dead, 202 injured, 220 missing, 17 neighborhoods hit hard.”

Santos visited Mocoa, the capital of Putumayo department, yesterday to supervise rescue efforts in the heavily forested region.

He declared a public health and safety emergency to speed up rescue and aid operations. He also expressed his condolences to victims’ families.

Nation in mourning

Putumayo Governor Sorrel Aroca called the development “an unprecedented tragedy” for the area.

There are “hundreds of families we have not yet found and whole neighborhoods have disappeared,” he told W Radio.

Carlos Ivan Marquez, director of the National Disaster Risk Management Unit, said the mudslides were caused by the rise of the Mocoa River and tributaries. The rivers flooded causing a “big avalanche”, the army said in a statement.

Some 130 millimetres (five inches) of rain fell on Friday night, Santos said. “That means 30% of monthly rainfall fell last night, which precipitated a sudden rise of several rivers,” he said.

He promised earlier on Twitter to “guarantee assistance to the victims of this tragedy, which has Colombians in mourning”.

“Our prayers are with the victims and those affected,” he added.

Rescue efforts

The authorities activated a crisis group including local officials, military personnel, police and rescuers to search for missing people and begin removing mountains of debris, Marquez said.

Some 1,000 emergency personnel are helping the rescue effort. Mocoa was left without power or running water and there were reports of some looting in efforts to get water.

“There are lots of people in the streets, lots of people displaced and many houses have collapsed,” Mocoa resident Hernando Rodriguez (69) said.

“People do not know what to do… there were no preparations” for such a disaster, he said. “We are just starting to realise what has hit us.”

Several deadly landslides have struck Colombia in recent months. A landslide in November killed nine people in the rural southwestern town of El Tambo, officials said at the time. A landslide the month before killed 10 people in the north of the country.

Climate change can play a big role in the scale of natural disasters, such as this one, a senior UN official said.

“Climate change is generating dynamics and we see the tremendous results in terms of intensity, frequency and magnitude of these natural effects, as we have just seen in Mocoa,” Martin Santiago, UN chief for Colombia, said.

© AFP 2017 with reporting by Órla Ryan

Read: ‘Under the mud I am sure there are more’: Mudslides kill 112 people in Colombia

Read: Activist shot dead as protesters storm government building in Paraguay

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