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Peter Greste in Caracas
"It was a deluge of biblical proportions"
 real 28k

The BBC's Peter Greste
"Disease is starting to take hold"
 real 28k

Peter Greste
"Four days after the deluge, the search for survivors continues"
 real 28k

Xavier Castellanos from the Red Cross
"Many roads have been swept away"
 real 28k

Monday, 20 December, 1999, 18:10 GMT
Flood toll climbing rapidly

A mother and baby are helped to safety by a Venezuelan paratrooper Survivors: A mother and baby are helped to safety by a Venezuelan paratrooper

At least 10,000 people have been killed in Venezuela's devastating mudslides and flooding, the country's foreign minister has said.

Some say the final death toll could be more than double that figure. The children's charity, Unicef, says 15,000 are dead with up to 30,000 missing.

The BBC South America correspondent says the wildly varying figures indicate the chaos and confusion on the ground, and the scale of the problems facing the authorities.

Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel said: "Definitely it won't be less than 10,000 dead."

Some 150,000 have been made homeless by mudslides which swept away entire shanty towns.

We could be talking about 15,000, 20,000, 25,000 people who are beneath the rubble
Angel Rangel

"There are bodies in the sea, bodies buried under the mud, bodies everywhere," the minister said.

He said the authorities had recovered 1,000 bodies so far.

The estimated death toll would make the tragedy the worst of its kind in Venezuela this century and surpass the 9,000 thought to have died as a result of Hurricane Mitch in Central America last year.

Civil Defence Agency chief Angel Rangel said as many as 15,000-25,000 people could have been killed in the disaster, but he conceded that the final toll may never be known.

"There are areas covered in as much as seven metres of earth. We will never know exactly how many people died there," Mr Rangel told Union Radio.

According to one army spokesman, the death toll is likely to be 1,000 in the coastal state of Vargas alone.

Vargas, just north of the capital Caracas, was the region hardest hit by unseasonal heavy rains which lasted for 10 days.

"The bodies that we have recovered allow us to make projections that surpass 1,000 dead," General Isaias Baduel, in charge of rescue operations, said.

"It's very probable that it will be much more than that," he added.

Click here to tell us if you have been affected by the disaster.

President Chavez President Chavez helps a young survivor

Officials assessing the damage have been forced to drastically alter their predictions of casualties as improving weather has allowed the true extent of the disaster to be seen.

Efforts to locate the dead are being overshadowed by the task of helping those still stranded.

Tens of thousands of people remain trapped in buildings surrounded by up to three storeys of mud and water.

Paratroopers using helicopters have managed to winch some victims to safety, taking them to Venezuela's main airport, which has now been transformed into a chaotic refugee centre.

Soldiers have also been drafted in to help control outbreaks of looting.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, himself a former paratrooper, took personal command of a 1,000-man platoon delivering food and water rations and communications supplies.

Disaster areas

Nine northern states and the capital have been declared disaster areas and, with many remaining accessible only by helicopter, the president has ordered in ships carrying amphibious vehicles in an attempt to reach victims by sea.

The international relief effort has also begun, with supply planes, helicopters, soldiers and medics arriving from the US, Mexico and Cuba.

According to the president, a total of 25 countries have pledged their support.

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See also:
20 Dec 99 |  Americas
Victims tell of flood nightmare
19 Dec 99 |  Americas
In pictures: Venezuela's flood chaos
15 Dec 99 |  Americas
'Social revolution' vote for Venezuela

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