HURRICANE AFTERMATH: Navy searches for stranded villagers

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MORE THAN 400 Royal Marines prepared yesterday to search for up to 900 people, including many children, stranded on the roofs of flooded villages along the border of Honduras and Nicaragua for the past 10 days without food or water.

In a potentially dangerous rescue attempt approved by the two disaster- stricken countries, the marines from 45 Commando will launch an unprecedented mission, possibly today, up the River Coco that forms the border.

The marines will attempt to sail against the current up the raging river in fast dinghies to areas where a Royal Navy Lynx helicopter on a video reconnaissance mission at the weekend filmed the stranded families, victims of the storms that followed the devastating Hurricane Mitch.

Marines' Sea King helicopters will follow the commandos upriver to hoist the victims to safety. Officials from both countries, where it is feared more than 20,000 have died in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, said it was unprecedented to have armed foreign troops sailing on a traditionally sensitive border.

The area was the scene of heavy fighting during the 1980s between Nicaragua's left-wing Sandinista army and American-backed Contra guerrillas based on the northern, Honduran side. It is still littered with landmines laid by both sides. There are fears that hundreds of the mines may have floated free during the floods and mudslides that ravaged both countries at the start of the month.

The marines are part of a three-vessel British task force that assembled yesterday off the north-eastern coast of Honduras, made up of the navy frigate HMS Sheffield, the brand new commando and helicopter carrier HMS Ocean and the RFA Sir Tristram.

The Sir Tristram broke off to pick up 400 marines of 45 Commando from Belize, where they had played an important role in evacuating people from the coast two weeks ago when it looked as though Belize was Mitch's target.

In fact, Mitch stopped dead then veered south to hammer Honduras' Bay Islands then the Honduran mainland, Nicaragua and the rest of Central America. The marines had previously been on exercises entitled, ironically, Caribbean Fury.

In addition to the rescue attempt, the marines and navy personnel will help Mitch victims with evacuation and first aid, and will provide food, water and medicine to those suffering from dehydration and possibly disease. They will then help to rebuild roads and bridges cut by Mitch's torrents, vital aid in the Western hemisphere's two poorest countries after Haiti.

The British effort followed expressions of disappointment by storm victims over the initial slow pace of Western aid, specifically aimed at the United States for skimping with its rescue effort. The Americans have a huge, secretive military base near Tegucigalpa and a long history of virtually running this country, militarily and politically, by proxy to stem the flow of Marxism.

Poverty-stricken Hondurans used to watch American military helicopters clatter over the countryside to pour money, weapons and food to the Contra guerrillas camped on the Honduran side of the border with Nicaragua. "Where are the gringos now?" has been a prevalent comment here.

On the banks of the muddy and still overflowing Choluteca river yesterday, Herman Ponce, a 46-year-old cobbler, his wife and six young children huddled in what used to be the Las Brisas suburb beneath a door-sized strip of corrugated iron, held up by four tree branches. They watched transport planes fly a few hundred feet over them to land at a Honduran Air Force base a few minutes' drive away. They were sitting on a slightly sunken square of earth where their house used to sit.

The radio said the planes were pouring in rice, beans, flour, corn, water, blankets and clothes. But the Ponce family, whose house was swept away by a 150ft torrent of mud nine days ago with the hundreds of others in Las Brisas, have not been visited by the authorities or seen any aid.

Herman was digging about six feet into the soggy earth that once was the base for his one-room house to find sand he could sell to the authorities in return for a few cents to buy tortillas. Many people here feel the capital city, among the worst hit by Mitch with entire suburbs of tin, adobe, even stone houses swept away, is being ignoredwhile aid is funnelled to the badly hit north and south.

At least one Honduran army officer, from the 105th Infantry Brigade in the northern San Pedro Sula region, has been arrested for stealing foreign food aid, apparently to sell to his starving countrymen.

To offset criticism of its slow response, the US embassy here issued press releases saying American forces had saved 700 Hondurans last week and were adding 20 helicopters to the original dozen assigned to the rescue effort.

While the Democratic former president Jimmy Carter was visiting Nicaragua, the Republican ex-President George Bush arrived here yesterday for a tour, carefully organised to ensure plenty of cameras would be on hand. Crews from the NBC television network wore blue shirts emblazoned with a special Mitch logo - "Rescue Task Force", issued by the US military base. Hundreds of thousands of cold, wet victims would have given the world for one such shirt.