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Storm Agatha kills at least 17 in Central America

MYT 2:46:24 AM

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - The remnants of Tropical Storm Agatha dumped more rain across Central America on Sunday after killing at least 17 people in the region, sparking fears of further mudslides in three countries.

Rocks and mud cover the highway after a landslide in Barberena May 30, 2010. (REUTERS/Daniel LeClair)

Rescue workers scrambled to restore communications to towns and villages cut off by landslides after Agatha, the first named storm of the 2010 Pacific hurricane season, slammed into the Guatemalan coast near the border with Mexico on Saturday.

The storm dissipated overnight as it crossed the western mountains of Guatemala but emergency workers warned residents to expect heavy rain for several more days.

Swollen rivers burst their banks and mudslides buried homes in towns and cities alike. A highway bridge near Guatemala City was swept away by the floodwaters and sinkholes opened up in the capital where many neighbourhoods remained without electricity.

The intense rainfall has sparked concern over the condition of the coffee crop in Guatemala, the region's biggest producer, as well as in El Salvador, where the rains fell heaviest in the principal coffee-growing region.

More than 3 feet (1 meter) of rain fell in parts of Guatemala, according to President Alvaro Colom.

"Many places are cut off but it appears the weather will improve a bit today and we will be able to airlift supplies to those places. The road network is badly damaged," Colom said at a press conference.

Guatemalan authorities reported 13 people confirmed dead and at least 24 missing. More than 74,000 people were forced to flee their homes.

Three people were killed in neighbouring El Salvador and 5,000 were in shelters, emergency officials said. Officials said they were looking into reports of another five fatalities but could not immediately confirm the deaths.

One man in northern Honduras was killed when his home collapsed and emergency officials warned of possible mudslides from saturated hills.

DAMAGE TO COFFEE UNKNOWN

Central America is vulnerable to heavy rains due to mountainous terrain and poor communications in rural areas. Last November's Hurricane Ida caused flooding and mudslides that killed at least 150 people as it moved past the region.

Guatemalan officials warned the flooding from the storm could be worsened by ash spewing out of the Pacaya volcano south of the capital that has blocked drainage systems.

The volcano, which erupted on Thursday, had already closed the country's main international airport and aviation officials do not expect to finish cleaning ash and debris off the tarmac until at least Tuesday.

The volcano remained active on Sunday but the intensity of the eruption appeared to be diminishing, civil defense officials said.

Pacaya has been active since the 1960s but had not ejected rocks and ash since 1998.

The volcano, located 25 miles (40 km) south of Guatemala City, is close to some of Guatemala's most prized coffee plantations.

National coffee associations in Guatemala and El Salvador said they had so far been unable to determine the extent of any damage to their crops due to poor communications.

(Additional reporting by Nelson Renteria in San Salvador and Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Writing by Robert Campbell, Editing by Sandra Maler and Vicki Allen)

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