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HUNT FOR SURVIVORS GOES ON IN COLOMBIA

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Huddled around fires and big pots of broth, about 1,800 Indians looked up anxiously at arriving rescue helicopters, their faces grim as they awaited news of missing relatives and friends.

Five days after a mudslide buried dozens of villages in the Cauca and Huila regions in southwest Colombia, the search for survivors continues, with helicopters plucking groups of people off remote hillsides and mountaintops and flying them to mass evacuation points.The federal government was unaware that many of the hamlets belonging to the Paez and Guambiano Indians even existed before an earthquake struck Monday night, unleashing a wall of ice and mud.

Emphasizing that their estimates are vague, disaster officials say as many as 1,000 people may have been killed and 13,000 left homeless; the government has reported only 269 confirmed dead, while a regional prosecutor said his office had counted 589 bodies.

Friday, a young couple in the makeshift camp finally learned the fate of their 2 1/2-year-old son. His body, covered in bruises, was brought in by helicopter and buried at one end of the camp.

Most of the people gathered on the Caloto plateau, an evacuation point near the obliterated village of Caloto in the Cauca region, are wearing the only clothes they now own. Sacks of flour brought in by rescue teams provide sustenance during the day and serve as pillows at night.

Families, and in some cases entire hamlets, share black plastic tents pitched along one end of a field.

In one tent, 20 orphaned boys greeted a visitor with wide, frightened eyes. Some were on the verge of tears, and others seemed stoic. "We are waiting to be evacuated to a safer area," one said. "Meanwhile, one has to pass the time. I am collecting wood for campfires."

Inhabitants familiar with the Caloto area have accompanied the police in the search, in many cases guiding officers toward dwellings they find have completely disappeared.

Riverbanks where communities once flourished are now entombed in hard mud rising as high as 90 feet. On the mountain plateaus, small groups of brightly dressed Indians frantically wave white flags at passing helicopters.

The Paez and Guambiano Indians here are still divided over whether they want to leave the area, which has been theirs "for longer than we can calculate," said Miguel Capaz, a Paez leader.

Their attachment to the land is strong. Many resisted being plucked from their homes and had to be persuaded to accompany their friends to rescue points. Some roamed the plateaus for days without food or water, frightened by the sight of police and army helicopters.

"Some of the people we spot on the mountains disappear when our helicopters arrive," said Col. Bernardo Millan, whose army contingent is overseeing disaster relief efforts here. "They have never heard the noise, and they are scared."

The earthquake leveled their houses, and the avalanche devastated their farms. A combination of the two destroyed a 17th-century Roman Catholic church in Caloto that sheltered their most prized relics.

Knowing that their forebears had weathered conquest and centuries of colonial rule, the 6,000 or so Paez and Guambianos paid little heed to warnings that the region's vulnerability to earthquakes and avalanches was the biggest threat to their way of life.

"People said the area was dangerous, but we couldn't believe it," Capaz said. "We didn't want to think of leaving."

As they await word of the fate of families and friends, panic has gradually given way to sadness.

Informing a crowd of villagers that the government planned to evacuate them to a safer area, one Indian leader here told his people: "We will have to leave. There is no question." Silence greeted the announcement.

Friday, spirits brightened a little after President Cesar Gaviria flew to the Cauca region and met with seven Indian leaders here. After he left, Capaz and the other leaders summoned the refugees and gave them the good news: The president had met all of the Paez and Guambiano demands.

The government promised to relocate both Indian communities, allot them new land as reservations in safer areas, pardon their mortgage debts and build new schools and health centers. A big cheer went up.

"We will be united in this because it is written in the scriptures," one leader told the crowd. "We will be spiritually and materially united."

But when the speeches were finished, a somber mood set in once again as rescue officials asked the Paez and Guambianos to form lines in front of their plastic tents, grouping themselves by village or hamlet.

As rescue officials interviewed them about missing family members and friends, occasional underground rumblings, aftershocks of Monday's earthquake, added to the anxiety.

One relief official gasped as she tallied the results from a group of 40 people. "They tell me that another 40 are missing," she said.

Scattered statistics like these have made disaster officials skeptical of the official toll of 269 confirmed dead; even national of-fi-cials say the final toll may exceed 1,000.

As more missing people are found, the Caloto plateau is becoming increasingly crowded. The government has agreed not to evacuate the Indians until as many as possible are reunited. "If we leave, we will leave together," Capaz said.

The Paez leader looked at the crowd of refugees, many still covered with mud from the avalanche. "We just want land and a roof over our heads," he said. "We lost everything. Our past is gone."