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Rescuers rush to hard-hit flood areas

Death toll hits 258 in Latin America

GUATEMALA CITY -- With food and water running out, governments in Central America and Mexico scrambled yesterday to reach isolated areas devastated by a week of intense rain, with residents saying panic was starting to grow among survivors.

Mudslides and flooding exacerbated by Hurricane Stan killed 258 people across the region, with Guatemala bearing the brunt of the damage and deaths.

Increasing fears yesterday was a strong earthquake that shuddered through both Guatemala and El Salvador. The quake caused a rain-damaged highway bridge to collapse in Guatemala and sent thousands of frightened Salvadorans into the streets.

There were no immediate reports of injuries from the quake, which had a preliminary magnitude of 5.8. Telephone service was cut off briefly in some areas of El Salvador, and Interior Minister Rene Figueroa urged residents to obey evacuation orders for high-risk areas.

The quake also forced officials to suspend their search for two coffee workers missing since last Saturday when the Ilamatepec volcano erupted about 40 miles west of the capital, San Salvador.

The earthquake struck before residents had even begun to recover from the five days of heavy rains, which included Hurricane Stan's landfall on Tuesday in Mexico's Gulf Coast state of Veracruz before it weakened into a tropical depression.

''We need food, clothing, medicine, and help," said Lucas Ajpus, a former firefighter coordinating rescue efforts in Santiago Atitlan, the Guatemalan city near landslides that hit four villages.

At least 50 bodies have been recovered, bringing Guatemala's death toll to 160. Workers continued to search for more than 100 missing people.

Ajpus said the bodies were found in two days of searching an area of 1,075 square feet. ''There's still a lot to be done because two towns have disappeared completely," he said.

In Pathulul, 30 miles away from Santiago Atitlan, creeks that normally stream down from the highlands had turned into raging rivers, cluttered with rocks, branches, and chunks of debris.

Guatemalan officials organized an air rescue squad of their own helicopters as well as those lent by the United States and neighboring Mexico. But poor weather prevented them from taking off until yesterday.

''We are going to review reconstruction policies and other important avenues to restore our country," Guatemalan President Oscar Berger said.

Residents and tourists in Panajachel, on the banks of Lake Atitlan, said they needed aid.

''Water is running out, food is running out, and looters are coming now," said Stephanie Jolluck, a 32-year-old businesswoman from Atlanta who was reached by telephone.

Jolluck, who has traveled to Guatemala for work since 1999, described watching rivers grow from their usual width of 6 feet to more than 50 feet.

Berger planned to visit the areas hit by landslides, including the town of Solola near Lake Atitlan, as well as the western province of San Marcos, on the border with Mexico, where residents cut off by floods have been pleading for help in telephone calls to radio stations.

The president said government workers with heavy machinery cleared fallen trees and dirt from a portion of the InterAmerican Highway, allowing rescuers to reach isolated communities.

The country's important Pacific coast highway remained impassable, however, after three bridges were washed out.

More than 270 communities have been affected by the floods and landslides, forcing the evacuation of more than 30,000 people, according to the country's disaster management agency.

In El Salvador, the death toll rose yesterday to 67 after two people were buried in separate mudslides, said Cesar Marroquin of the National Emergency Committee.

More than 62,000 people had been evacuated, including 5,000 removed yesterday.

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