Hit-and-run driver kills 18 Guatemalans

Sololá (Guatemala) (AFP) –


A truck ploughed into a crowd of indigenous Guatemalans gathered on a highway, leaving 18 people dead in its wake as it drove off without stopping, plunging the Central American country into mourning on Thursday.

The government announced three days of mourning after the incident Wednesday night in the western town of Nahuala, whose population of around 65,000 are mostly K'iche' Maya.

A group of people had converged at the entrance of the town, at the scene of another hit-and-run in which a local community leader was killed, when they in turn were hit by a truck with its lights off on a road without street lighting.

Chilling images from the scene showed the victims' bodies in their brightly colored clothing laid out in a line on the asphalt, as relatives cried out in anguish.

"In total, there are 18 deaths that have been counted in this tragedy," fire department spokesman Cecilio Chacaj told AFP, revising down a previous toll of 30 that he attributed to early chaos on the scene where bodies were piled up on top of each other.

"The place was in chaos and there were corpses piled on top of other corpses."

Three of the dead were children, Chacaj said.

Another 20 people were injured in the accident, several seriously, and were being treated in hospitals.

The truck driver escaped after the incident but police spokesman Pablo Castillo told reporters a patrol had managed to capture him after a high-speed chase.

"After a chase, police officers managed to capture a man allegedly responsible for running over several people with a truck that was travelling at excessive speed in the municipality of Nahula," Castillo said.

The man was identified as 28-year-old Pedro Rene Lorenzo Lopez, who was allegedly driving the yellow-striped black and white truck involved in the incident.

"For reasons unknown, he ran over several people, leaving 18 dead, including a child under eight years of age," Castillo said.

A photo released by police of the recovered truck shows dents on the cab, likely to be from the impact of the collision with the crowd.

- Nation in mourning -

The government announced three days of mourning starting Thursday, while President Jimmy Morales tweeted his condolences.

"We are currently coordinating actions to provide all the support to the victims' families," he said.

Authorities set up a morgue in the local community hall where family members arrived to pick up the bodies of loved ones and take them back to their homes before funerals later Thursday.

Hundreds of people crowded around the morgue, located near a market, as heartbroken families took possession of coffins and bore them to a fleet of nearby pick-up trucks and cars.

Castillo that investigators were initially prevented from getting to the scene by angry residents and relatives of the victims, and were given access only after several hours of talks with community leaders.

Local reports said the man killed in the first accident was a community leader and president of the state Council of Urban and Rural Development, though authorities have not confirmed this.

The semi-trailer did not have its lights on when it struck the group of people, which may have been why the driver did not spot them, while the highway was also unlit, according to local media.

Traffic rules are frequently ignored in Guatemala, a nation of some 16.5 million people.