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Saturday, December 18, 1999:

Thousands airlifted from Venezuela disaster area

LA GUAIRA, Venezuela ( Reuters ) - Military helicopters airlifted thousands of people from a devastated stretch of Venezuela's Caribbean coast on Saturday after days of floods and mudslides killed more than 200 people and left 7,000 missing and 150,000 homeless.

As the magnitude of the South American country's worst natural disaster in 50 years began to emerge, about 35 helicopters airlifted at least 15,000 people trapped in part of the state of Vargas, just north of the capital, Caracas, officials said. Those rescued were sent to provincial cities.

The government set up the major military air and sea rescue operation under the orders of Presidet Hugo Chavez, a former paratrooper, after several days of torrential rains the triggered flash floods and landslides.

Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel said on Saturday the number of dead, although not officially tallied, was between 200 and 300 and ``could rise in the next few hours.'' He said there were 7,000 missing.

Unconfirmed reports said the number of dead could be in the thousands. Rangel, speaking to reporters, said 150,000 were left homeless nationwide.

Most of the victims were buried alive under avalanches of mud or swept downstream on Wednesday and Thursday as unseasonable downpours drenched Venezuela's central coastal area, including the Caracas, where at least 100 died.