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Floods, mudslides force evacuations in Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) Deadly floods and mudslides caused by torrential rains prompted authorities to evacuate hundreds more Venezuelans from high-risk regions yesterday and stoked fears that voters would abstain from important elections in 11 cities and two states.

Meteorologists forecast more rain in several of the states hit hardest by a weeks-long deluge. Vice President Elias Jaua announced that a dam overflowed in western Zulia state, but he called for calm, saying the incident had not caused any deaths and noting that 300 people living in villages below the dam had been evacuated.

“It's not going to have significant consequences,” Jaua said.

The floods and mudslides unleashed by more then two weeks of steady rain throughout much of this South American nation of 28 million have killed at least 34 people and left more than 5,000 Venezuelans homeless. At least 75,000 people have taken refuge at hundreds of shelters, authorities said.

The government has declared a state of emergency in the capital and three states: Miranda, Vargas and Falcon. Rains also pounded the western states of Zulia, Trujillo, Merida and Tachira on Saturday. The heavy rains have continued even though the country's wet season usually ends in mid-November.

Marcos Duran, a forecaster at the National Meteorology Institute, told Union Radio that a storm off Venezuela's coast was expected to bring rains Sunday to numerous states, several of which have already been hit hard.

Sumate, a local nongovernmental organisation that monitors elections, has expressed concern the rains would keep voters away from balloting for governors in two states and mayors in 11 municipalities, including Maracaibo, the South American country's second-largest city.

“This situation will undoubtedly have negative effects regarding the participation of voters,” Sumate said in a statement issued on Saturday.

On Margarita Island, more than 200 families were evacuated from a town near the San Juan River, which overflowed its banks, said Wolfang Diaz, an official with Venezuela's emergency protection agency. Diaz told the Globovision television channel on Sunday that early-morning rains caused mudslides nearby, clogging dikes and prompting the river's water levels to swell.

National Guard troops and federal police planned to evacuate 360 families from the hillside slum of Nueva Tacagua, located on the outskirts of Caracas, National Guard Cmdr. Luis Mota Dominguez told the state-run ABN news agency.

“We are currently preparing the way to attempt to fly in with Russian helicopters,” Mota Dominguez was quoted as saying.

Enrique Mendoza, an opposition politician, said water levels reached almost five feet in Higuerote, a town in central Miranda state located alongside Venezuela's Caribbean coast, flooding surrounding highways and roads. “There's no way to get into the town,” Mendoza said in an e-mail.

Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles Radonski told Globovision on Saturday that more than 4,600 of the state's residents had been left homeless.

Political foes of President Hugo Chavez have charged that his government's response to the floods has been lackluster and that he has failed during his 11-year rule to meet rising demand for low-income housing. Consequently, increasing numbers of poor Venezuelans have been forced to live in ramshackle slums ringing major cities, they say.

“There are no longer any excuses for this unprecedented failure,” prominent opposition politician Julio Borges said yesterday.

During a visit to the coastal state of Vargas yesterday, Chavez announced his government would construct houses near Simon Bolivar International Airport, the country's largest and busiest airport, and within the bounds of El Avila National Park, a mountainous swath of land separating Caracas from the coast. He lashed out at critics, saying wealthy Venezuelans have done little to help ease the effects of the floods.

“You people from the upper class should have already offered your golf courses to set up tents” for those driven from their homes, Chavez said.

Floods have also ravaged neighbouring Colombia, where 170 have died during the country's rainy season, according to the International Red Cross. “The rains have increased in different areas of Colombia and they will continue until the first days of the coming year,” Jorge Ivan Nova, a representative of the Red Cross in Colombia, said recently.

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Published December 06, 2010 at 1:00 am (Updated December 10, 2010 at 10:17 am)

Floods, mudslides force evacuations in Venezuela

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