By Kimberly White
LA GUAIRA, Venezuela, Dec 20 (Reuters) - At least 10,000 people were killed by mudslides and flash floods that swamped Venezuela's Caribbean coast last week, burying whole towns under tonnes of mud and boulders, a government minister said on Monday.
"Definitely it won't be less than 10,000 dead," Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel told Reuters in a telephone interview.
The death toll would make it Venezuela's worst ever natural disaster. It would also surpass the approximately 10,000 people killed in Central America by Hurricane Mitch last year.
Authorities have recovered 1,000 bodies so far, Rangel said.
"There are bodies in the sea, bodies buried under mud, bodies everywhere," he added.
Most of the victims were buried under avalanches of mud or swept downstream on Wednesday and Thursday as torrential rains drenched Venezuela's central coastal area, including the capital Caracas where at least 100 people died.
Worst hit was the thin coastal strip of Vargas state, an industrial and tourist area roughly twice the size of the U.S. city of Chicago.
About 350,000 people lived in Vargas. The state lies just north of the Avila mountain range, which rises sharply to 8,300 feet (2,330 meters) from the sea and where mudslides and raging rivers buried entire settlements under yards (meters) of earth, boulders and rubble.
Another 200,000 people were made homeless by the floods that affected the South American country's entire northern coast, stretching from the tourist resort Margarita Island to the western Zulia state bordering Colombia.
COASTAL TOWNS VIRTUALLY DESERTED
With officials hinting that most of Vargas state would have to be razed, the government has launched a massive air-and-sea military rescue operation involving 12,000 troops, about 40 helicopters and several warships.
Most towns along the coast were virtually deserted on Monday, evacuated to reduce the growing epidemic risk caused by blocked drains, absence of running water and huge quantities of rotting corpses.
"The most important thing right now is to evacuate everyone ... as soon as possible. It will take about five more days," said Defense Minister Raul Salazar, who calculated that it would take at least 10 years to rebuild the disaster area.
"This state was practically wiped out but it can be rebuilt," he said.
At the once plush resort town of Caraballeda, now engulfed in a tide of dirt, concrete, rocks and tree trunks, long lines of people waited under a blazing sun and waded in water up to their chests to board a naval frigate that had edged its prow onto the shore. Soldiers carried some aboard on stretchers.
Helicopters buzzed back and forth overhead ferrying people and supplies to and from the Simon Bolivar international airport, which has been turned into a military air base.
The homeless were being accommodated in sports centers and schools around the country.
President Hugo Chavez, a former army paratrooper, said late on Sunday he would order home thousands of troops to free up space in military barracks. He also called on wealthy Venezuelans to "adopt a family for Christmas."
Soldiers carrying semi-automatic weapons patrolled the rubble strewn coastal streets, searching for those still reluctant to leave. A dusk to dawn curfew was imposed to combat widespread looting and theft.
The government warned on Sunday that it would take "the necessary measures" to restore public order.
In a televised address Deputy Interior and Justice Minister Alexis Aponte also denied rumors that food and basic necessities were in short supply and called on Venezuelans to desist from panic buying.
Near the seaport of La Guaira, people walked impassively past four coffins lined up on the shore, just a few feet (meters) from the sea.
Close by, a man waved a white shirt to flag down a passing helicopter onto which a woman in a stretcher was loaded.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet