Venezuela

Venezuela Sets Aside $775 Million to Rebuild

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By Michael Christie

LA GUAIRA, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuela on Thursday launched itself on the long task of rebuilding after the deadliest mudslides in its history, while troops continued to pursue looters on its devastated Caribbean coast.

Infrastructure Minister Julio Montes said the government was making roughly $775 million immediately available to repair roads, electricity supplies and water pipes in a 60-mile strip of Vargas state buried under a sea of debris that killed up to 30,000 people last week.

''We're talking about having 500 trillion bolivares ($775 million) available right now that can be used to address the problems created by this tragedy,'' Montes told reporters.

The dangers of evacuation and relief efforts six days after torrential rains sent huge mudslides crashing down the slopes of the Avila mountain range were apparent after a helicopter carrying survivors crashed in a ball of flames Wednesday. Eight people, including three children, died.

It was the fifth accident involving scores of Venezuelan army, private and U.S. military helicopters flying rescue missions over Vargas, but the first one with fatalities.

Once a favorite weekend destination for middle-class residents of Caracas, an hour's drive away, much of Vargas was now just a desolate, lunar-like landscape where apartment blocks poked out of head-high mud and rubble. With most of the dead probably buried under tons of debris, the exact body count may never be known. But the mudslides seemed certain to rank among the deadliest Latin American disasters this century.

About 30,000 Survivors Left Behind

Troops patrolled the ruins and arrested looters, while reports emerged of women being raped.

Police special forces shouted into windows of apartment towers to see if anyone was there, while dogs left behind by their evacuated or dead owners roamed the area.

About 100,000 people have left the area. Some walked out, while others were airlifted or plucked from beaches by warships. About 30,000 remained and were urged in pamphlets dropped by army helicopters to stay in doors at night.

Resident vigilante groups patrolled with sticks, baseball bats and sometimes arms, communicating at night by banging pots to warn of danger. Bonfires have been lit to suppress the stench of rotting corpses.

Around 6,400 troops have been deployed in the ghost towns of Vargas and army engineers have begun to plow paths through the destruction with massive earthmovers, trying to open up access for rescue and repair teams.

Officials say the damage will cost oil-rich but recession-hit Venezuela billions of dollars.

International aid has begun to flow in but Red Cross officials say food and water are urgently needed for the living, as are medicines to ward off epidemics and lime to cover the dead.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter urged Washington to help. ''My hope is that the U.S. government will marshal the same level of assistance that we provided to the victims of Hurricane Mitch in Central America,'' Carter said.

Mitch battered Central America a year ago, killing 9,000. The region received about $9 billion in debt relief and aid from the international community.

In the United States, Cleveland Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel, one of 23 Venezuelans in the U.S. major leagues, called on Americans to donate cash. ''He just wants to do his part. He's really concerned about the children,'' said Julie Safer of Edelman public relations.

Local media reported that President Hugo Chavez could be granted emergency powers by an all-powerful Constitutional Assembly to operate a ''war economy.''

The assembly, whose six-month mandate expires on Feb. 3, has assumed legislative powers after the demise of the opposition-controlled Congress following the approval of a new charter in a referendum last week.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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