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A NATION IN ANGUISH

Paratroopers pinned down looters stealing from the dead and destitute Tuesday, in the aftermath of Venezuela's devastating mudslides and flash floods that officials now say may have killed up to 30,000 people.

The landslides, which almost wiped out a 60-mile stretch of Caribbean coast, were likely to rank as one of Latin America's worst natural disasters of the 20th century.

Amid persistent looting, soldiers carrying semi-automatic weapons scoured the desolate moonscape left by the avalanches of mud and rocks that buried most victims alive but left some corpses exposed to the tropical sun.

"There are unfortunately thousands of people buried in the mud, and the final number we will never know -- the forecast that we could have may be 25,000 or 30,000 people," Civil Defense National Director Angel Rangel said.

"We are trying to identify the bodies . . . even though they are in mass graves," Attorney General Rafael Perez told Reuters.

Bearing the brunt of the disaster was Vargas state, an area of 350,000 people with popular beaches, not more than an hour's drive from the capital, Caracas.

There, mudslides and raging rivers swept away shantytowns perched on steep slopes of the lush Avila mountain and left tall buildings marooned in a sea of rock-hard debris.

Government officials said reconstruction would run into the billions of dollars and take several years. Economists predicted the disaster would worsen a deep economic recession in the oil-rich country of 23 million.

Gen. Charles Wilhelm, head of the U.S. Southern Command, reported after a visit to the disaster zone that the death toll appeared to be "catastrophic." Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said in Washington, "We are supplying body bags by the thousands."

President Hugo Chavez, a former paratrooper who has tirelessly toured the disaster area dressed in his trademark combat fatigues, has been very cautious on the death toll since the crisis began.

He said Monday that 342 bodies had been recovered. But officials repeatedly said the vast majority of the victims were buried under several feet of mud or washed out to sea.

Rangel, who was speaking to the Globovision television network, said: "The government cannot say there are 25,000 victims unless we have them identified. . . . We're not trying to hide the figures. We're not saying there are only 300 dead."

A total of 23,000 homes were destroyed and 140,000 people made homeless.

Officials have said most of Vargas state, an area around half the size of Rhode Island, would have to be razed and turned into parks.

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.

Saying the killer mudslides were a disaster waiting to happen, Chavez blamed the scale of the tragedy on the "criminal irresponsibility" of "corrupt" previous governments that allowed illegal shantytowns to invade dangerous terrain.

"There were governments violating the laws of nature. Nature has its own laws," he said.

The evacuation of Vargas continued in an air-and-sea military rescue operation involving 13,000 troops, 5,000 volunteers, about 40 helicopters and 16 warships.

With international aid pouring in, U.S. officials praised the efficiency of the relief operation.

"The U.S. military is very, very impressed with how the Venezuelan military is handling this," one official in Caracas said, adding that Chavez, in power for 10 months, had taken an impressive leading role.

About 70,000 people left Vargas by air and sea in addition to the tens of thousands who walked along the devastated coastline to La Guaira, from where they were bused or flown to temporary shelters in sports centers and army barracks.

At Caracas' main cemetery, gravediggers worked for free to prepare space for up to 2,000 corpses.

Marco Pantoja, head of the Caracas municipal cemeteries, said Venezuela had plenty of space for bodies but was running out of coffins.

In Vargas, the attention was on trying to prevent epidemics caused by rotting corpses, a failed sewage system and an absence of potable water.

Though the army appeared to have stopped widespread looting, thieves still pillaged damaged houses.

In Macuto, picking their way through the rubble, four youths carried television sets and hi-fi equipment.

"They are looting mostly at night," said Julio Arevalo, a soldier with the engineering corps, as leaflets rained down from army helicopters imposing a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Officials said the Simon Bolivar international airport, at nearby Maiquetia, would be closed for at least another week. Some international flights were being diverted to regional airports.

During a meeting Monday in Caracas with Wilhelm, Venezuelan officials requested the assistance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in constructing houses for flood victims, Gen. Lucas Rincon, head of the Venezuelan army, told the Associated Press.

A nationalist preoccupied with issues of sovereignty, Chavez previously denied a U.S. request to use Venezuelan air space for anti-drug flights.

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