Hundreds feared buried as giant landslide hits Mexican town

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The Independent US

Rescue workers were struggling to reach a remote town in south-western Mexico where hundreds were feared buried last night after a giant landslide triggered by days of rain buried up to 300 homes while people were sleeping.

Access to Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, which has a population of 9,000, was limited because of smaller slides that blocked roads through a mountainous region east of Oaxaca. Officials said seven people were killed and at least 100 were missing, but that the number is expected to rise. Earlier reports suggested more than 500 people were buried.

Parts of Mexico are suffering their worst flooding in years. Conditions worsened as two powerful storms swept into the south of the country this week from the western Caribbean.

Donata Vargas, an official from the town, said the landslide appeared to have struck between 3am and 4am. "We were all sleeping and all I heard was a loud noise, and when I left the house I saw that the hill had fallen," Mr Vargas told the AFP news agency. "We fear that those missing are buried inside their homes, because we've already searched nearby areas."

The Mexican President, Felipe Calderon, was reported to be making preparations to visit the town. Also on his way to the area was the governor of the state of Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz.

Officials said the tragedy occurred after a slab of mountainside nearly 700 feet across came loose. Mud buried many houses but rescuers held out the hope that some of those trapped may still be alive. "We hope to arrive in time to rescue the families who were buried under the hillside," Mr Ruiz said.

"We haven't reached the location yet," he told reporters. "There has been lots of rain, rivers have overflowed and we're having a hard time reaching the area because there are landslides on the roads."

A contingent of marines, police and soldiers were being deployed to the area to help. Attempts were also being made to reach the town by small plane and helicopter. The terrain is extremely tortuous, with rugged mountain ranges of up to 10,000 feet.

"The sierra of Oaxaca... is very steep and, with all of this rain, landslides are just waiting to happen," Marcelino Nicolás Sánchez, a lawyer with the non-governmental group SER Mixe, said.

A member of the Oaxaca civil protection force, Fausto Martinez, said they had been alerted to the disaster after receiving a call before dawn from somebody in the town with a satellite phone. "They said the mountain had collapsed and a lot of people were in their homes because of the hour," he said.