Landslide buries up to 200 in Colombia: Red Cross

 As many as 200 people may have been buried in a landslide Sunday that swept over 10 houses near Medellin, Colombia's second largest city, Red Cross relief workers said.

"The initial count is that there may be 150-200 people considered missing. So far, we have rescued three alive," said Cesar Uruena, a Red Cross operations deputy director.

"We are focused on moving rubble to see if we find survivors," he added.

The landslide struck the La Gabriela district of the town of Bello north of Medellin, just after 1900 GMT. Medellin lies 400 km (250 miles) northwest of Bogota.

"The landslide buried 10 houses, each of then with three stories. Because on Sundays people usually have their family over for lunch, we think that on average there were between 15 and 20 people in each house," Uruena explained.

Two firefighters look a tractor-trailer trapped in a landslide on the road between Buga and Buenaventura in Colombia on December 4, 2010
Two firefighters look a tractor-trailer trapped in a landslide on the road between Buga and Buenaventura in Colombia on December 4, 2010

About 300 residents of the neighborhood rushed to search for missing friends and many tried to help rescuers pull away the rubble, bit by twisted bit.

Antioquia Governor Luis Alfredo Ramos also was on the scene of the tragedy. Medellin lies in a valley and many poorer neighborhoods of sometimes precariously-built houses are stacked up the mountainsides where they are highly vulnerable to heavy weather.

Faced with the dire situation, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos hurried home from the Ibero-American summit in Mar del Plata in Argentina.

His government was weighing a state of emergency hoping to free up more funds for the country's widespread weather and flood-related damage.

"This is going to cost a lot of money," Santos said referring to overall recovery effort. "Unfortunately, this tragedy has just kept growing."

As of last week, the government estimated weather related damage at more than 300 million dollars -- before the weekend's disasters.

Colombia has been lashed in recent weeks by heavy rains that have left at least 176 people dead and 225 injured, as well as 1.5 million people homeless nationwide.

And in neighboring Venezuela to the east, driving rains have triggered flooding and cave-ins that have killed 34 people over the past week and left an estimated 90,000 people homeless nationwide, officials said.

The non-stop storms were being blamed on atmospheric disturbances from La Nina, a phenomenon in which cooler-than-normal water circulates in the Pacific Ocean around the equator.

In Venezuela states of emergency have been declared in four states -- Falcon, the Capital District, Vargas and Miranda. Thousands of people sought help at shelters nationwide.

"We are up to 640 shelters that we have opened, where we have 22,780 families," said Venezuelan Defense Minister Carlos Mata Figueroa.

And Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Sunday his government will seize private land and rezone a national park to build new housing for thousands of people made homeless by the worst floods in 40 years.

On Thursday, he authorized funding to build more than 9,000 new housing units in Caracas for flood victims.

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