Survivors sought after Colombia mudslide kills 262

Mocoa (Colombia) (AFP) - Rescuers clawed through mud and timber Monday searching for survivors of a mudslide in southern Colombia that killed 262 people, including 43 children, and left relatives desperately seeking loved ones.

Survivors scrambled onto roofs or hung onto trees as a sea of mud, boulders and debris engulfed the village of Mocoa late Friday.

Some watched as their children and relatives were swept helplessly away.

Among them was Ercy Lopez, 39, who was left hanging to a tree after the deluge tore away her home.

Lying on a mattress in a shelter for survivors, she said people were still searching for her 22-year-old daughter Diana Vanesa.

"The hopes of finding her alive are slim now," she said.

Debris was everywhere in the remote Amazon town: buried cars, uprooted trees, children's toys and odd shoes sticking up out of the mud.

Survivors gathered at the local hospital and at the cemetery to search for family members and friends.

- People, houses swept away -

The National Disaster Risk Management Unit raised the death toll to 262 on Monday. Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos earlier said that at least 43 children were among the dead.

The Red Cross counted a further 262 people injured and 220 missing.

Hundreds of rescuers were working at the scene of the disaster, using mechanical diggers in the search, said the unit's director, Carlos Ivan Marquez.

"The first 48 hours of the search have been hard but effective and we think the number of people we now have to find is minimal," he told Caracol Radio.

Locals said it was never safe to live so close to the three rivers, which overflowed after days of torrential rain.

Wilson Chilito, 22, said he scrambled onto the roof of a house from where he watched "people, fridges and houses" being swept away.

He lost his sister, mother-in-law and at least two other relatives.

"This was foreseen for a long time," he told AFP as he packed up belongings from his home, his boots full of mud.

Founded in 1563, "the town has about 10 rivers running through it," said Mocoa's Mayor Jose Antonio Castro, quoted by newspaper El Espectador.

"That means it is not a place where a town should be located."

Santos traveled to Mocoa on Saturday to oversee relief operations and mourn the victims.

"We offer our prayers for all of them. We send our condolences and the entire country's sympathies to their families," Santos wrote on Twitter.

- Baby buried -

Covered in mud, 38-year-old Marta Gomez told of going to search for her missing niece -- and making a chilling find instead.

"I dug and dug and found what turned out to be a baby's hand. It was horrible," she said in a shelter set up for the newly homeless.

As she stood in line waiting to register for government aide for those who lost their houses, Gomez told AFP she had given up on finding her niece.

"The mud took her away. I'll never see her again."

- Vomiting mud -

Carlos Acosta survived by clinging to a tree branch, but could not save his three-year-old son, Camilo.

"The water swept us away and then I was hit by rocks," he said.

Acosta was knocked unconscious, and when he woke up the child was gone.

"I was dying due to a lack of air -- so what did I do? I stuck my finger in my mouth and vomited a lot of mud," Acosta, 25, told AFP.

"I sneezed out mud until I could breathe again."

- Spate of floods -

Santos said the mudslide destroyed a local aqueduct and knocked out power to much of the surrounding department.

He said four emergency water treatment plants would be set up "to avoid an epidemic and an even bigger public health crisis."

Most of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the town of 40,000 are poor and populated with people uprooted during Colombia's five-decade-long civil war.

The Pacific northwest of South America has been hit hard by recent floods and mudslides, with scores killed in Peru and Ecuador.

Colombia's worst ever disaster was a volcanic eruption in 1985 that triggered a landslide and destroyed the city of Armero, killing 25,000 people.

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