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Volcano death toll rising

Rescuers pulled survivors and bodies from the charred aftermath of the powerful eruption of Guatemala's Volcano of Fire, as the death toll rose to 69 on Monday and was expected to go higher from a disaster that caught residents of remote mountain hamlets off guard, with little or no time to flee to safety.

Using shovels and backhoes, emergency workers dug through the debris and mud, perilous labour on smouldering terrain still hot enough to melt shoe soles a day after the volcano exploded in a hail of ash, smoke and molten rock.

Bodies were so thickly coated with ash that they looked like statues, and rescuers were forced to use sledgehammers to break through the roofs of houses buried in debris up to their rooflines to try to see if anyone was trapped inside.

Fanuel Garcia, director of the National Institute of Forensic Sciences, said 69 bodies had been recovered and 17 of those had been identified.

"It is very difficult for us to identify them because some of the dead lost their features or their fingerprints" from the red-hot flows, Garcia said. "We are going to have to resort to other methods ... and if possible take DNA samples to identify them."

Guatemalan authorities say they had been closely monitoring the Volcano of Fire, one of Central America's most active, after activity picked up around 6 a.m. Sunday.

The volcano has registered a number of minor eruptions over the years, and no evacuations were ordered as scientific experts reported the activity was decreasing.

Guatemala's disaster agency, Conred, issued a number of standard precautions, advising people to wear protective face masks, clean their rooftops of ash once the eruption was over and cover any food and water intended for human consumption. It also said to heed any recommendations from authorities. Guatemala City's international airport was closed due to the danger to planes.

Conred spokesman David de Leon said that around 2 p.m. the volcano registered a new, more powerful explosion.

In El Rodeo on Monday, heavily armed soldiers wearing blue masks to avoid breathing in ash stood guard behind yellow tape cordoning off the disaster scene. Helmeted workers carried bodies away on stretchers, and smoke was still rising from some parts of the ashen landscape strewn with boulders and other debris.

President Jimmy Morales travelled to survey the disaster area.

Emergency crews in helicopters managed to pull at least 10 people alive from areas cut off by the flows. Conred said 3,271 people had been evacuated.



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