Japan landslide: Death toll rises to 39 in Hiroshima

The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes says "horrific stories" are beginning to emerge after the disaster

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Heavy rain has hampered rescue operations in Japan's Hiroshima prefecture where a landslide killed at least 39 people.

The number of people missing has risen to 51 after police cross-checked information with fire crews, officials quoted by Kyodo news agency say.

About 3,000 rescue personnel are in the area but heavy rain has suspended search operations.

Torrential rains have led to the evacuation of up to 100,000 people.

On Friday afternoon all searches in the area were called off when the shape of nearby hillsides appeared to change, raising fears that more landslips could be on the way.

"Operations in (two districts) were halted as hills there were becoming misshapen," a Hiroshima police spokesman is quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.

The landslides happened after the equivalent of a month's rain fell in the 24 hours up to Wednesday morning, Japan's weather agency said.

Dozens of homes in a residential area close to a mountain on the outskirts of Hiroshima were buried.

The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes says with the leap in the death toll, the eventual number of victims could be close to 100.

Rescue work continued into the night but rain suspended searches Rescue work continued into the night but rain suspended searches
 local resident removes mud in the rain at a site where a landslide swept through a residential area at Asaminami ward in Hiroshima, western Japan, August 22, 2014. Mud gushed through homes in the residential area close to mountain

Among those killed was one 53-year old rescue worker who died when a second landslide struck after he had already pulled several people to safety.

Reports said he was killed while holding a toddler he was trying to rescue. A father was handing his small son to the rescue worker only to see both engulfed as a fresh mudslide swept down the mountain.

"There was a really strange smell, a very raw, earthy smell. When we opened a window to see what was going on, the entire hillside just came down, with a crackling noise, a thundering noise," Reuters news agency quotes one woman who survived as telling local television.

She and her husband fled moments before mud gushed through their house, leaving boulders where they had been sleeping, Reuters says.

Houses at the scene have been buried in mud and rocks

Correspondents add that a number of children are thought to have perished in the disaster.

Much of central and southern Japan is mountainous, with many homes nestled into steep slopes.

Last year, a typhoon triggered landslides on Izu Oshima island, south of Tokyo, that left 35 people dead.

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