Page last updated at 22:18 GMT, Monday, 5 January 2009

Dozens die in Guatemala landslide

Emergency workers at the scene of a landslide near the village of Aquil Grande in northern Guatemala (05/01/2009)
The highway had already been closed after an earlier landslide

At least 33 people have died in a huge landslide in a northern area of Guatemala and many more are missing.

Thousands of tons of earth collapsed on to a road in the Alta Verapaz area, some 200km (124 miles) north of the capital, Guatemala City.

But officials say the figure could be much higher as approximately 140 people were in the area at the time of Sunday's landslide.

Rescue efforts have been hampered by further rockfalls, officials say.

Guatemalan Deputy Minister of Public Works Wilfredo Garcia told a news conference rescue workers were "taking every precaution" but had been unable to get heavy machinery into the area.

The accident happened in a hilly, sparsely populated area, blocking a road that runs from San Cristobal Verapaz to Chicaman.

The same area was hit by a rockfall last month, killing at least two people.

The landslide is so big, we don't have much hope of recovering many more bodies
Mayor Leopoldo Ical

The road through the area had been closed since then but more than 140 people are reported to have ignored safety warnings and left their vehicles to walk past the barriers on foot.

Most of them are believed to have been labourers working on nearby coffee plantations.

Some officials said a geological fault triggered the movement of earth, sending huge amounts of mud and rock down a hillside, while other reports suggested road work along the highway could have set off the slide.

Leopoldo Ical, mayor of the nearby San Cristobal Verapaz municipality, said everyone was dismayed by the tragedy.

"The landslide is so big, we don't have much hope of recovering many more bodies," he said.

Guatemalan media said the landslide was some 1.5km wide.

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