By Paul Hughes
LA GUAIRA, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan troops on Wednesday plowed through head-high mud and rubble so rescue teams could dig for up to 30,000 bodies in a coastal area devastated by one of Latin America's worst mudslides.
Paratroopers patrolled ghost towns in the Caribbean state of Vargas, pinning down looters ransacking homes of people evacuated after torrential rains last week sent torrents of debris crashing down from the Avila mountain range.
With perhaps 30,000 dead, according to the Civil Defense, 23,000 homes destroyed and some 140,000 people homeless, the Venezuelan mudslides appeared to rank as one of the continent's deadliest natural disasters this century.
Oil-rich but battered by a persistent economic recession, Venezuela is likely to face billions of dollars in clean-up costs and years of rebuilding, officials say.
Hugo Chavez, a failed coup leader who rode a tide of popular discontent to become president of the South American nation of 23 million 10 months ago, spoke to President Clinton to request pontoon bridges so rebuilding could begin.
A former paratrooper, Chavez has toured the Caribbean coast tirelessly in a red beret and combat fatigues since death and destruction struck last Wednesday and Thursday, burying many alive but leaving some corpses poking out grotesquely under the baking, tropical sun.
War Bridges From Clinton
''I asked Clinton for 1,000 meters of war bridges ... in order to restore communications in some areas,'' Chavez said after taking the call from Clinton on his cell phone.
Clinton said he was impressed by the ''heroic reaction'' of the Venezuelan people and promised to deliver the bridges, Chavez told reporters while visiting a refugee camp in the Fuerte Guaicapuro army barracks, 30 miles south of Caracas.
The worst-hit area was a 60-mile stretch of Vargas a popular holiday area for middle-class residents of the capital and home to bustling beaches until the turquoise seas of the Caribbean were turned brown with mud.
Most of the state's 350,000 inhabitants have been evacuated in a massive rescue operation led by 13,000 troops, 5,000 volunteers, about 40 helicopters and 16 warships.
The mudslides and raging rivers swept away shantytowns perched on steep slopes of the lush Avila mountain and left tall apartment blocks with swimming pools marooned in a sea of rock-hard debris.
Wild dogs roamed the lunar landscape while the army dropped pamphlets warning those who remained behind in the desolation to stay in doors at night.
Looters Make Off With Tv Sets
Troops warded off gangs of youths ransacking empty apartments but several people could be seen making off with televisions and other goods strapped to their backs.
Venezuelan army engineers on Tuesday began to drive huge earthmovers through the debris in order to give search and clean-up teams access. They were set to continue the work on Wednesday as the reconstruction efforts began in earnest.
U.S. officials in Caracas said the clean-up was ''key.'' They said the Venezuelan army was capable of handling the job on its own even as foreign aid flowed in from around the world.
On Tuesday, the Andean Development Corporation (CAF) offered $175 million, adding to the millions already pledged by the United States, the World Bank, Germany, the European Union and a host of other nations. Some countries, including Mexico and the United States, have sent helicopters and disaster experts.
Chavez has said many survivors would be moved to new settlements away from the coast based around agricultural communities and small business parks on military bases and farms donated by landowners.
The fate of the thousands of bodies thought to be still buried under several yards of hardened mud was unclear. Venezuelan officials have said many of the worst affected areas of Vargas would have to be turned into parks.
In Central America last year, after Hurricane Mitch tore through the region killing some 9,000 people, Nicaraguan officials decided to turn the slopes of the Casita volcano, where a mudslide buried 2,500 people, into a memorial park.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet