200 feared dead in Brazil mudslides

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Some 200 people were feared dead after being buried in mudslides near Rio de Janeiro, officials said, bringing new tragedy to Brazil following massive floods which have already killed 180 people.

Civil Defense officials said that at least 161 people had also been injured in the weather chaos of the past four days, and the state of Rio reported that 14,000 people have been forced to move due to the heavy rain.

"From what the neighbors said, some 200 people may be buried, but it is not clear, there could be more," local fire chief Pedro Machado told AFP Thursday as crews battled to dig through mudslides that raged through a slum built on an old landfill in Niteroi, a city across the bay from the Rio de Janeiro.

Twenty-five people, including eight small children, were pulled out alive on Thursday after spending hours buried under mud and debris.

The rescues fueled new hope for anxious relatives desperate to find their loved ones, as an army of rescue workers -- soldiers, firefighters and civil defense workers armed with spades and pickaxes -- continued their search.

But firefighters said there was little chance of finding survivors after part of the hillside fell away and slid some 700 meters (yards) swallowing everything in its path, including 50 houses, a day-care center and a pizzeria.

Local media reported that at least 15 bodies had been pulled from Niteroi's Morro do Bumba shantytown.

Rio Governor Sergio Cabral said the situation was an "ecological and human catastrophe," on a visit to the slum.

"It's absolutely incredible," Cabral said, estimating that cleaning operations would last two weeks.

The death toll rose late Thursday to 180, in floods and mudslides around Rio since it was hit Monday by the worst rains in half a century.

Most of the casualties were trapped in landslides in the slums around Rio, a metropolis of some 16 million people that will host the World Cup football tournament in 2014 and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

An angry mob in the neighborhood near Rio's iconic Christ the Redeemer smashed one of the trains that takes tourists up to the gigantic statue, upset over the death of three locals, the Agencia O Dia reported.

The crowd said the company that owns the tourist trains was responsible for diverting a sewage canal towards the shanty town four years ago that channeled much of the flood water over the past days. The company director rejected the charges.

The toll was likely to rise as dozens of people were reportedly still missing after the rains, which displaced more than 1,400 people and destroyed scores of homes.

Sabrina Carvalho de Jesus, 26, a hospital worker, escaped with her life when the earth began to move, but her grandfather, mother and six-year-old son were buried.

"Honestly, I don't hold out hope any more" for her missing loved ones, she said. They were under "an awful lot of earth, and being buried for 12 hours -- that's a lot of time," she added.

The head of the Niteroi public services, Jose Mocarzel, said the Morro do Bumba shantytown had been built up over the past 25 years on an old landfill site and was particularly at risk.

A strong odor of methane lingered among the trash-strewn streets.

Flooding over the past days has been so intense that authorities urged residents to remain indoors. Rainfall lessened by Wednesday, but was predicted to continue all week.

Emergency officials said most fatalities were in slums around Rio and announced plans to try to evacuate tens of thousands of inhabitants fearing further loss of life.

Various officials and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva criticized decades of negligence which allowed shoddy home construction in high-risk zones.

But the authorities were blasted in the press for failing to anticipate the disaster.

Brazil had already seen deadly deluges in Sao Paulo earlier this year after the wettest summer in the region in more than six decades. National weather service Inmet said Tuesday's rainfall was the heaviest in 48 years.

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