The bodies of more than 250 people have been pulled out of mud and rubble in Colombia after deadly landslides struck the southern American country. As rescue personnel race to find survivors, as many as 200 people are still unaccounted for.

Water from three overflowing rivers swept through the town of Mocoa, located in south-western Colombia, flooding homes and sweeping away vehicles as big as lorries. Most of the victims were caught unawares as the mudslides hit when they were asleep. Just after midnight, an avalanche of muddy waters and debris uprooted trees and destroyed buildings on their way leaving little time for inhabitants to cope with the situation. Mocoa, the capital of Putumayo province, lies near the border with Ecuador.

The three rivers broke their banks after a month of heavy rainfall in the region. President Juan Manuel Santos declared a state of emergency after visiting the disaster zone. He said the death toll could be higher as scores of people were still missing. Close to 400 people have been injured so far, many of critically.

Over 1,100 military and police personnel have been deployed to carry out rescue operations. But rescue work has been hampered by poor weather and lack of electricity.

Images showed troops carrying women and children over mud-caked houses and trees.

Hundreds of families have been displaced in Mocoa with local reports suggesting similar devastation in at least a dozen other hamlets in the area. Fear has gripped the area that river waters could rise again affecting the neighbourhood.

"The hospital collapsed and we don't have water, electricity and gas. The bridges are destroyed. The roads to Huila are impassable. We are fenced in," Mocoa's Mayor Jose Castro said. "The rains are going to remain inclement and I fear they could lead to another tragedy to add to the pain we people from Putumayo are already feeling."

Colombia landslides
A man searches for his belongings after heavy rains caused several rivers to overflow, pushing sediment and rocks into buildings and roads in Mocoa Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters