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Search called off in Guatemala town

Authorities cease operation in area ruined by mudslide

From Harris Whitbeck




El Salvador
Disasters (General)

SANTIAGO, Guatemala (CNN) -- Guatemalan authorities called off the search Tuesday for bodies in Panabaj, where between 600 and 1,000 people may be buried under a mudslide that obliterated the town five days earlier.

Panabaj, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Guatemala City, was declared a danger zone Tuesday because of health hazards, including the threat of more mudslides.

A Spanish volunteer rescue group surveyed the scene Monday and said there was nothing else it could do.

The remnants of Hurricane Stan, which hit the Mexican coast last week, combined with the normal Central American rainy season to send rivers of mud flowing down the central Guatemalan highlands.

The heavy rains affected 20 of Guatemala's 22 provinces as well as other parts of Central America.

Officials said at least 500 people have been killed in Guatemala. A fresh landslide in the west of the country was reported to have killed nearly 40 more people Monday.

The United Nations issued a "flash appeal" Monday for about $22 million in aid for Guatemala, saying "entire villages have been swept away" by landslides numbering more than 900.

UNICEF, the U.N. children's aid agency, said Tuesday it is rushing emergency relief supplies to communities in Central America and Mexico.

"The demographics of the affected areas suggest that more than a third of the victims of this tragedy are children," said regional director Nils Kastberg.

UNICEF said the rains left nearly 500,000 people homeless from southern Mexico to El Salvador, prompting some to call it the region's worst disaster since Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

The organization said it is seeking almost $6 million for relief in Guatemala and El Salvador and has diverted funds from its regular development programs in the affected countries.

Relief picks up

Relief operations began to kick into high gear Monday after a break in the weather allowed boats and helicopters to carry aid to Guatemalan villages cut off for days by the flooding and mudslides.

A good part of the country is at risk of a food shortage, said Eduardo Secaira, the country's international aid coordinator.

"The problem is that the south coast is also in bad shape, so basic crops like corn and rice are gone," Secaira said. "I'm concerned that this shortage could last several weeks. "

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Monday "preliminary estimates indicate that damage to national agriculture will surpass $400 million."

"The availability of food will be curtailed in the short-term," OCHA said in a written statement.

Private helicopters delivered food Monday to Santiago, and improved weather allowed boats to cross Lake Atitlan, a popular tourist destination, to take supplies to communities on the opposite side.

Residents of villages on the far shore hurriedly distributed whatever aid they could get.

The United States and Mexico have dispatched helicopters to assist in the relief efforts.

Army Gen. John Craddock, chief of the U.S. military's Southern Command, visited Guatemala City on Monday to coordinate efforts with government officials there.

"They were well prepared and they have done a very good job," Craddock told CNN.

Adam Ereli, deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said Tuesday the United States has provided more than $250,000 in relief supplies to Guatemala, including hygiene kits, blankets, drinking water and fuel.

"Southern Command has delivered eight helicopters to assist Guatemala in search and rescue assistance in priority areas," he said. "They are also preparing to provide medical equipment and equipment for rebuilding bridges in Guatemala."

Tens of thousands of Guatemalans have been displaced, and local authorities are concerned that the food crisis could become a medical crisis.

"We have many people who are still recovering physically, but we need three things: water, more medicine and a general plan to prevent infections in the future," said Dr. Francisco Mendes Puac, a physician for the U.S.-based CARE International.

In El Salvador, the situation was complicated by the eruption of one of the country's largest volcanoes.

The United States has given El Salvador $100,000 in aid, said Ereli, "to meet the needs of people who are in shelters as a result of severe flooding as well as volcanic eruptions."

CARE said Guatemala and El Salvador had heavy infrastructure damage, with some main roads blocked by landslides and low-lying areas cut off by flooding.

The aid group's staff said Monday that areas in southern and western Guatemala had no electricity or clean water.

The director of OCHA's New York office, Ed Tsui, told reporters Monday some people were not willing to give the Guatemalan army access to areas due to its past activities in the nation's civil war, which ended in 1996.

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