Guatemala's Indians refuse soldiers' help, deal with dead from rains on their own

Guatemala's Indian communities, haunted by memories of the country's civil war, refused to accept soldiers' help, instead conducting their own search-and-rescue efforts Monday and performing traditional ceremonies to honor the dead.

Guatemalan officials were likely to give up searching for 384 missing. They will likely be added to the 652 people already declared killed in a week of flooding and landslides across Guatemala, raising the death toll to more than 1,000.

Another 120 people were killed in El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras.

In Guatemala's isolated western township of Tacana, near the Mexico border, rescue workers on Sunday recovered more than 130 bodies from a mudslide that buried a shelter where people had taken refuge from rains and flooding.

Highways were washed away or blocked by rains and mudslides in both Guatemala and Mexico, preventing rescue workers from reaching some sites for several days. Mountainsides saturated by rain remained dangerously unstable in Guatemala.

The sensitivity of the Indian communities' past _ including tens of thousands of deaths at the hands of soldiers and death squads in the 1960-96 civil war _ was clearly on display in Panabaj, where residents refused to even consider allowing troops in to help recover bodies.

Panabaj, a community on the outskirts of Santiago Atitlan, was buried by a mudflow a half-mile (one kilometer) wide and as much as 15 to 20 feet (4 to 6 meters) thick.

"The people don't want soldiers to come in here. They won't accept it," said Panabaj Mayor Diego Esquina, who noted that memories are still too vivid of a 1990 army massacre of 13 villagers on the same ground in Panabaj now covered by the mudslide.

On Sunday, Panabaj residents stood shoulder-to-shoulder and forced back a squad of about 20 army troops who had come to help dig out victims. The soldiers also were run out of the town in the 1990s following the massacre.

"There is a very strong resistance in the name of maintaining their culture," said Rodolfo Pocop, 35, a Santiago Atitlan resident who represents a national Indian rights group.

All of the mudslide victims were Sutujil Indians. Only about 100,000 still exist in the country, and all live in communities on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Pocop said.

"It was a very severe blow to this ethnic group," he said.

The Indians struggled Monday to reconcile the demands of tradition _ which require that bodies be recovered and buried exactly 24 hours after dying _ with the shifting fields of mud and rotting corpses, which threatened disease and injury.

Experts "have advised us not to dig anymore because there is a great danger" that the still-soaked earth may collapse again, said Uvaldo Najera, a Tacana municipal employee reached by telephone.

Esquina said community leaders have asked that the area be declared a cemetery.

"We are tired," he said. "The bodies are so rotted that they can no longer be identified. They will only bring disease."

Hundreds of Mayan villagers who has used shovels, picks and axes to dig for victims in previous days gave up their efforts Sunday, overwhelmed by the task.

Many of the missing will simply be pronounced dead, and the ground where the bodies rest declared hallowed earth. About 160 bodies had been recovered in Panabaj and nearby towns, and most were buried in mass graves. Many could not be identified, either because they had no more family members left alive or because the bodies were too decomposed.

Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein said steps were being taken to give towns "legal permission to declare the buried areas cemeteries" as "a sanitary measure."

Indian residents of Santiago Atitlan, dressed in colorful embroidered shirts and cotton, knee-length shorts with sashes, performed incense- and herb-laden rituals both to pacify the spirits of the dead and to ask Mother Nature to spare them from further disasters.

Also visible at the site were a series of iron rods tied with red plastic to indicate where sniffer dogs had located bodies.

The sun shone brightly Monday as government and foreign helicopters ferried in medicine and water treatment supplies to Santiago Atitlan's town square, a stone courtyard fronting a 16th-century Catholic Church.

Thousands of hungry and injured survivors mobbed the helicopters on Sunday, one of the first days aid was delivered to communities that had been cut off from the outside world for nearly a week.

The helicopters, including private craft, and U.S. Blackhawks and Chinooks, fanned out across the nation to evacuate the wounded and bring supplies to more than 100 communities, AP reported.

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