By Gilles Trequesser
CARACAS (Reuters) - The Venezuelan government denied on Monday that this month's deadly mudslides could have been avoided, rejecting accusations that authorities had failed to warn residents of the potential magnitude of the catastrophe.
Environment and Natural Resources Minister Jesus Perez said the ''kind of natural phenomenon'' that devastated Venezuela 11 days ago, killing up to 30,000 people, was ''difficult to predict ... even with the most modern technology.''
In Venezuela's worst natural disaster in modern times, days of torrential rains triggered huge avalanches of mud, rocks and trees, burying most victims under tons of mud and debris.
Thousands of flimsy homes on mountainside shantytowns were engulfed along a 60-mile (100-km) swath of Caribbean coast just north of Caracas. About 400,000 people were left homeless nationwide in the South American country of 23 million.
President Hugo Chavez on Monday again blamed ''corrupt'' previous governments for allowing illegal shanties to invade dangerous terrain and luxury apartment buildings to be erected in areas highly vulnerable to flash floods and mudslides.
''We'll have to investigate lots of things,'' he said at an official ceremony at Miraflores presidential palace.
''Laws Of Nature Have Been Ignored''
Perez, in a televised address, used the same argument, saying ''basic laws of nature have been ignored in Venezuela for years ... diverting the course of rivers, invading riverbeds.''
''These outrages to ecozystems have brought upon us the sad reality that we are all deploring,'' he said.
In dozens of interviews in the past week, survivors from Vargas state, parts of which now look like a war zone, have said they had received no warnings or orders to evacuate.
Opposition leader Jorge Olavarria argued the government was aware of the magnitude of the tragedy in Vargas ''while the rest of the country was still in the dark.''
Writing in the daily newspaper El Nacional on Sunday, he said the Civil Defense agency had handed Chavez a report early on the afternoon of Dec. 15, about 12 hours before massive mudslides crashed down Avila mountain, urging him to declare a state of national emergency.
The report mentioned ''overflowing rivers and landslides along the whole coast ... with at least 1,500 people in urgent need of evacuation.''
''None of this was passed on to whoever was in danger,'' Olavarria added.
Other critics have argued that Chavez and his government were too busy that day overseeing a key referendum on a new constitution to worry about the weather.
President's Robust Riposte
Referring to this in his speech on Monday, Chavez said, ''Some are saying that I was unable to forecast this.''
''Let them investigate me, then. Let them stand me against the wall and shoot me,'' he added in his usual colorful military rhetoric.
Civil Defense head Angel Rangel also brushed off the accusations, saying the problem ''was not so much the rains but the type of country on which it fell.''
''In Caracas, it rains for two hours and you have landslides,'' he told the Globovision television network, arguing that shantytowns had been allowed to sprout in risky areas for decades.
On both sides of the Avila mountain range that separates Caracas from Vargas and the Caribbean Sea, impoverished Venezuelans for years have claimed plots of land without permits and precariously erected crude homes on hilltops above ravines and gullies.
''There has been total chaos as far as urban planning is concerned in this country,'' with 70 percent of the poor building ramshackle homes ''in areas geologically unstable,'' Rangel said.
He said Civil Defense had warned in May that the weather phenomenon La Nina could unleash the worst rains in Venezuela in 40 years, telling municipalities to adopt preventive measures.
''We have to go through things like that for some people to really wake up,'' he said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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