CARACAS, Jan 19 (Reuters) - The Venezuelan government on Wednesday admitted that human rights violations, including summary executions of looters by troops, might have occurred in the aftermath of last month's devastating mudslides.
Reversing an official stance that challenged the credibility of local human rights groups and media reports, Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel admitted to reporters "the existence of such human rights abuses would not be unusual".
Human rights organizations Provea and Cofavic said they had received at least 20 reports of summary executions by troops in the central Caribbean state of Vargas, ravaged in mid-December by flash floods and mudslides in which up to 30,000 people may have died, according to the government.
President Hugo Chavez, who initially blasted as "totally superficial" and "irresponsible" the Provea report, said on Sunday that authorities had found no evidence to support accusations of human rights abuses and shootings in Vargas.
Provea coordinator Raul Cubas said the reports did not point to "a situation of massive violation of human rights." However, speaking with the Venezuelan Foreign Press Association before Rangel's news conference, he deplored Chavez's initial reaction to his organization's report.
"This will be a watershed" for Chavez, who has made a point of promoting human rights since taking office a year ago, he said.
Chavez, a retired military officer, has also questioned a newspaper article that used anonymous testimony in a report about an incident in which soldiers allegedly beat a suspected rapist to death.
FLOOD SURVIVORS SAID BEATEN
Adopting a more conciliatory tone, Rangel, a former leading investigative journalist, praised the work of non-government organizations and the media in making the alleged abuses public.
The government "will not hide anything," he said, acknowledging that the long, unfortunate history of human rights abuses in Venezuela "cannot change overnight".
Rangel showed reporters a letter he sent on Tuesday to Cesar Gaviria, the head of the Organization of American States (OAS), asking him to send a mission to Venezuela "in order to study the denunciations that have been made."
Looting was rife in Vargas, just north of the capital Caracas, in the first days after the mudslides. Shops were ransacked and apartment buildings broken into, amid unconfirmed reports of delinquents raping women and troops being told to shoot on sight during a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
The Provea report, which the rights group acknowledged was "incomplete and difficult to verify," cited testimony that said presumed looters were forced to kneel and then shot to death by soldiers.
The report contained accounts -- which Reuters reporters also heard -- from people who said they overheard soldiers in Vargas plotting to "eliminate" looters and common criminals and of residents being beaten by troops as they tried to salvage belongings from their flood-damaged homes.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet