Bogota: Mudslides killed around 200 people and left hundreds injured or missing after destroying homes in southern Colombia, officials and Red Cross said on Saturday.
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 Friday after days of torrential rain.
President Juan Manuel Santos visited Mocoa, the capital of Putumayo department, on Saturday to supervise rescue efforts in the heavily forested region.
He declared a state of “public calamity” in a Twitter message, declaring measures to speed up rescue and aid operations. He expressed his condolences to victims’ families.
“The latest death toll is 154. It is a truly terrible figure,” Santos told reporters. The Red Cross aid group said 400 people were injured and 220 were missing. “The number is rising enormously and at considerable speed,” Rescue official Cesar Urena told AFP.
The disaster is of “large proportions,” he added.
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, told AFP 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.
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.
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.
A thousand emergency personnel were helping the rescue effort.
Mocoa, a town of 40,000 people, was left without power or running water.
Several deadly landslides have struck Colombia in recent months. A landslide in November killed nine people in the southwestern rural town of El Tambo, officials said at the time.