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Searches for victims ending

Mark Stevenson Associated Press

GUATEMALA CITY – Dozens of foreign tourists fled devastated lakeside Mayan towns on foot and by helicopter Sunday 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 Sunday, five days after Hurricane Stan made landfall on the Gulf of Mexico coast, bringing torrential rains before weakening to a tropical depression.

More than 640 people died and hundreds more were missing across Central America and southern Mexico after a week of rains. 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.”

Many of the missing apparently will simply be declared dead, and the ground they rest in declared hallowed ground. About 160 bodies have been recovered in Panabaj and nearby towns, and most have been buried in mass graves.

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 communities still cut off by mudslides and flooding.

On Sunday, as aid workers reached the most remote areas, they learned that a mudslide had buried a storm shelter in the town of Tacana, about 12 miles from the Mexican border, where about 100 people had taken refuge from rains and flooding.

Thirty-seven bodies have been dug from the shelter since the mudslide hit Wednesday, and 52 people were still missing, said Jorge Hernandez of the country’s civil defense agency.

Thousands of hungry and injured survivors mobbed helicopters delivering the first food aid to communities that have been cut off from the outside world for nearly a week.

Some communities along Guatemala’s Pacific coast have been cut off for almost a week, and when aid helicopters finally arrived on Sunday, hungry and desperate villagers grabbed wildly at bags of flour, rice and sugar.

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

In El Salvador, authorities reported 71 deaths from the rains, after two people were swept away by flood waters in San Salvador on Saturday.

The rest of the dead were scattered throughout Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and southern Mexico.

Mexican President Vicente Fox visited devastated Chiapas state Sunday as flood waters began to recede.

“The important thing is that the worst is over,” Fox said. “Now comes the reconstruction.”

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