- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 9, 2005

GUATEMALA CITY — Foreign tourists fled devastated lakeside Mayan towns on foot and by helicopter yesterday as Guatemalan officials said they would abandon communities buried by landslides and declare them mass graveyards.

Villagers who had swarmed over the vast mudslides with shovels and axes digging for hundreds of missing gave up the effort five days after Hurricane Stan brought torrential rains to the region.

More than 640 people died, and hundreds more were missing across Central America and southern Mexico. In hardest-hit Guatemala, 519 bodies had been recovered and reburied. Some 338 were listed as missing.

“Panabaj will no longer exist,” said Mayor Diego Esquina, referring to the Mayan lakeside hamlet in Guatemala covered by a half-mile-wide mudflow as much as 15 to 20 feet deep. “We are asking that it be declared a cemetery. We are tired. We no longer know where to dig.”

Mr. Esquina said bodies were now so rotted that identification was impossible. He said about 250 people were missing in Panabaj. Only 77 bodies were recovered, he said. Promised dogs trained to detect bodies failed to arrive in time.

Vice President Eduardo Stein said steps were being taken to give towns “legal permission to declare the buried areas” as hallowed ground.

Attention turned to aiding thousands of hungry or injured survivors as helicopters — including U.S. Black Hawks and Chinooks — fanned out across Guatemala to evacuate the wounded and bring supplies to more than 100 isolated communities.

As some foreign tourists worked shoulder to shoulder with Mayans to dig for missing victims, others hiked around mud-choked roads or boarded government helicopters in the second day of evacuations from the area around Lake Atitlan.

Helicopters went to the nearby town of San Andres Semetabaj to fly out an estimated 20 Scandinavians trapped since mudslides cut off the area several days ago. About 50 more tourists were hiking out of the lakeside town of Panajachel.

“We got about 400 [tourists] out last night, and were expecting more today,” said Solomon Reyes of Guatemala’s Tourism Ministry.

In some areas, the arrival of the Guatemalan military only complicated matters. Villagers in Panabaj refused to allow in the army because of memories of a 1990 massacre there during the country’s 36-year civil war.

But U.S. military helicopters from Joint Task Force Bravo based at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras joined the rescue efforts with a half-dozen Black Hawk helicopters and one Chinook transport helicopter, running flights through dense clouds and heavy fog.

“We’re still in search-and-rescue mode,” said Army Maj. Bob Schmidt. “We’re in the saving-life-and-limb thought process.”

The U.S. craft delivered some medical supplies and personnel and evacuated children needing medical care.

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