Alotenango — Nearly 200 people are missing and at least 75 have been killed since Guatemala’s Fuego volcano began erupting over the weekend, officials said Tuesday.
Seven communities in already devastated areas were evacuated as the volcano’s activity increased, with rescue operations halted.
In the city of Escuintla, near the summit, panicked locals rushed to their cars to escape, causing chaotic traffic.
An AFP photographer saw a large plume of ash rise into the sky, prompting an evacuation of everyone authorities could find before the police, the military and rescuers were ordered to stand down.
A total of 192 people were still missing after the weekend eruptions, disaster relief agency chief Sergio Cabanas said.
The search for bodies in mountain villages destroyed by the eruption was progressing slowly, officials said earlier, given the nature of the terrain and the way the volcano released large amounts of boiling mud, rock and ash down the mountain.
"We will continue until we find the last victim, though we do not know how many there are. We will probe the area as many times as necessary," Cabanas said.
However, the prospect of finding any more survivors was poor, he said.
"If you are trapped in a pyroclastic flow, it’s hard to come out of it alive." He said people possibly caught in the flow might never be found.
The 3,763m volcano erupted early on Sunday, spewing out towering plumes of ash and a hail of fiery rock fragments with scalding mud.
Authorities said more than 1.7-million people had been affected by the disaster, including more than 3,000 ordered evacuated, many of them living in shelters in Escuintla, Sacatepequez and Chimaltenango since Sunday’s eruption.
The speed of the eruption took locals by surprise, and could be explained by it producing pyroclastic flows, sudden emissions of gas and rock fragments, rather than lava, said volcanologist David Rothery of Britain’s Open University.
President Jimmy Morales, who has declared three days of national mourning, has visited the disaster zone.