SAN JOSE - A HUGE mudslide triggered by heavy rain crashed Thursday into homes near the mountainous Costa Rican capital, killing at least 20 people and leaving 12 others missing, rescue officials said.

A wave of mud and rocks rushed down the Pico Blanco hill at dawn and slammed into some 30 homes in San Antonio Escazu, a south-western suburb of San Jose, said the National Commission on Emergencies (CNE).

'They are now talking about 20 people dead,' CNE spokesman Reinaldo Carballo, told AFP. Rescuers scoured the area for 12 others missing among upturned cars, washing machines and twisted sheets of tin roofing material, all buried helter-skelter in mud that in places was waist-deep. Among the bodies recovered at the disaster site, AFP saw those of two children.

'It sounded like airplanes approaching, then we were hit,' said Ismael Morientes, who lost his home and car but managed to flee with his family.

Landslides affected other parts of the city but there were no victims, said Red Cross spokesman Freddy Roman. President Laura Chinchilla urged that search and rescue efforts be left to trained professionals, amid reports civilians were digging around, slowing down crews already hampered in their work by driving rain.

'Even women and children are getting involved in the rescue effort... it's our duty to protect their lives,' Chinchilla told a press conference in San Jose.

Later the search for survivors was suspended for the night, the Red Cross said, but rescuers planned to resume the effort at first light.

Costa Rica mudslide kills 20