More than 40 Peruvians are feared dead after an avalanche of mud and rocks, possibly triggered by seismic activity, buried a village in northern Andes on November 8, civil defence officials said. Villagers in Sicsi, which has several natural hot water springs, said moments before the avalanche they heard an explosion and saw a large cloud, while a sulphur-like smell engulfed the area, civil defence officials said.

The avalanche also rained down on other small groups of mud-brick homes around Sicsi, about 530 miles north of Lima, leaving an estimated 1,200 people homeless. Heavy rains in Peru typically trigger avalanches of rocks, earth and water. This is a common feature in the Andes. The latest one was a result of underground earth movements, said experts. It seems to have been some sort of volcanic eruption, they added.

"This is unusual in the area it was completely unforeseeable,' said Cesar Ramal, the civil defence official heading the rescue operation from nearby Cajamarca.

Villagers in Sicsi, which has a population of 1,000, used its only form of communication, with other villages in the area, an old two-way radio to notify authorities of the disaster. Most of the missing are residents of La Pucara who were taken completely by surprise. Only one army plane carrying six tonnes of water was able to land near the scene of disaster.

Civil defence rescue teams were searching for survivors and providing food and blankets to the homeless, when last reports came in. A team of geologists from a local mine also arrived at the village to investigate the cause of the avalanche.