Latin America & Caribbean

Mocoa landslide: Colombia president defends rescue effort

Aerial views shows the devastation in Mocoa, Colombia, 4 April 2017 Image copyright EPA
Image caption Whole neighbourhoods were swept away by a torrent of mud and rocks

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has defended his government's response to the Mocoa landslide, saying rescue agencies were brought together just hours after the disaster.

Mr Santos has faced criticism for the relief effort but told the BBC it was "natural" for those affected by the landslide to blame the government.

He blamed climate change, caused by richer countries, for the disaster.

At least 263 people died when mud and rocks hit the town early on Saturday.

The Red Cross says more than 300 people are still listed as missing.

The flood followed a night of heavy rain which raised the level of the Mocoa River and three tributaries, sweeping away entire neighbourhoods.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption President Santos met grieving families at a Mass for the victims in Mocoa

Mr Santos declared an "economic, social and ecological emergency" and pledged 40,000m pesos ($13.9m; £11.1m) in aid for the stricken south-western town.

But many residents have criticised his government for slow response and a lack of planning.

"It's very natural that people who are suffering from such a tragedy will be anxious and try to blame someone and of course they would blame the government," Mr Santos told the BBC.

"What I can tell you is that the way we responded, especially how fast we responded, has no precedents in Colombia or in many other disasters in the world."

He said new systems had been put in place following deadly floods in 2010 attributed to the La Niña climatic phenomenon.

"We have a system, which we have been elaborating and creating after the phenomena of La Niña, which was the worst natural disaster at the beginning of my government, and the system is working," Mr Santos said.

"We put in place a central command where all the institutions that are involved started to work 12 hours after the disaster. This is something we have never seen before either here or in any other countries around the region."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Civil defence teams have been helping families bury victims of the landslide

Mr Santos said the tragedy was a demonstration that climate change "has terrible effects".

"Rich countries are the ones that have created climate change more than poor countries," he said.

"All the world is vulnerable to climate change, but a country like Colombia is especially vulnerable because of our geography and location.

"The intensity of the rain - it rained in two hours what would usually rain in one month. That intensity produced the avalanche that is a direct product of climate change."

Meanwhile, families in Mocoa have been continuing to bury victims of the landslide.

At the town cemetery, Flor Enil Lozada wept over the wooden coffin of her son Jhon, 22, who was swept away along with his wife and 18-month-old daughter.

"They loved each other so much. He adored the little girl," she said.

Officials say 80% of the town, which has a population of about 70,000, is still without electricity.

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