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EARTHQUAKE TOLL MIGHT EXCEED 2,000 IN COLOMBIA

A heavy downpour has slowed the search for earthquake victims as Colombian officials predicted that the death toll would jump to more than 2,000.

The rain also worsened the suffering of survivors seeking shelter, food and medicine after one of the worst natural disasters in Colombia's history.

The confirmed death toll from Monday's magnitude-6 quake in western Colombia reached 700, but officials said the number was sure to rise.

Red Cross officials said about 500 bodies had been recovered in the provincial capital of Armenia alone, with many outlying towns yet to be canvassed.

The earthquake devastated cities and villages across western Colombia, where much of the world's coffee is grown. As darkness fell in Armenia, a city of 300,000, the slow task of removing debris was hindered by rain.

Fernando Arias, a 34-year-old construction worker, said residents of his neighborhood -- even those whose houses were intact -- were afraid to spend the night there because of the threat of landslides.

Schools and stadiums were turned into makeshift shelters but did not have enough space to house the estimated 180,000 people left homeless.

Food and drinking water also were in dangerously short supply. And prices for another coveted commodity -- coffins -- have risen, angering victims' relatives.

"We don't have enough coffins to bury the dead," said Quindio Gov. Henry Gomez. Relief workers wrapped bodies in black plastic or blankets.

At the Red Cross headquarters in Armenia, a volunteer tried to calm a grumbling, frustrated line of aid seekers, assuring them that assistance was coming. But the rain had forced a halt to distribution of goods from a warehouse across the muddy street.

President Andres Pastrana canceled a planned visit to Europe and declared much of western Colombia a disaster zone in an effort to speed up rescue efforts. On a flight over the region Tuesday, he saw devastated towns and coffee plantations.

Pastrana promised an initial $12.6 million to rebuild homes.

"This is the moment in which all Colombians will pay back those who for years and with their own hands have collected the coffee beans and have generated for us peace, progress and work," he said.

Aid pledges came from around the world, including more than $1 million from the European Union and $10 million from the Inter-American Development Bank.

Teams of earthquake specialists from the United States, Japan and France traveled to Colombia to aid the search for survivors. Mexico said it would send an army search team with sniffer dogs and power generators.

Gloria Echeverri de Roman, Armenia's Red Cross chief, appealed for tents and tarps to shelter the homeless, many of whom set up makeshift campfires in the streets. More than 2,000 city residents were injured by the quake, she said.

Residents banded together to clear debris and salvage furniture and clothes. In some areas, however, looters took advantage of the confusion to steal food from damaged markets.

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