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Congo Red Cross halts search for hundreds of flood victims

FILE PHOTO: Thousands still missing as Congo flood survivors search for relatives

BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - The Congolese Red Cross has suspended its search for hundreds of victims of recent deadly floods in eastern Congo as it lacks the machinery needed to dig through metres of mud and debris, its local representative said on Tuesday.

Red Cross teams have been searching for bodies since early May, when the villages of Bushushu and Nyamukubi, both in Democratic Republic of Congo's South Kivu province, were devastated by flash floods that swept away entire homes and killed more than 460 people.

"All those we refer to as missing - and there are still hundreds - I think they are dead. They are buried 3 metres below the surface, under the deluge of mud, rocks, and timber," Desire Yuma Machumu, head of the South Kivu Red Cross, told Reuters by phone.

"The volume of debris no longer allows us to work by hand," he said, adding that the search could resume if provincial authorities are able to provide mechanical diggers and other heavy machinery.

Recovery efforts have been hampered by the remote location of Kalehe territory, where days of torrential rain triggered the landslides and floods on May 4.

"The bodies are in such a state of decomposition that it is no longer bearable," said Archimede Karhebwa, the deputy administrator of Kalehe, echoing the Red Cross's call for more equipment.

South Kivu Governor Theo Ngwabidje Kasi said the road to the villages was still cut off, but would reopen soon.

"The opening of the road will allow us to bring in everything we need for the optimal management of this disaster," he told Reuters.

Close to 9,000 people have been impacted by the floods, which also raised fears that the dead bodies and destroyed sewage systems could contaminate water and spread disease.

"We have collected the bodies on the surface and so far we have avoided the worst since there are no cases of cholera," said the Red Cross's Yuma Machumu.

(Reporting by Crispin Kyala and Sonia Rolley; Editing by Anait Miridzhanian and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)