As aftershocks continued to panic survivors of Saturday's huge earthquake in El Salvador, hope was fading yesterday of finding more victims alive beneath the mud and rubble.

So far 609 bodies have been recovered, almost half of them from the Las Colinas suburb in Santa Tecla, about 10 miles south-west of the capital, where 400 houses were razed by a mudslide brought down from the surrounding mountains by the quake.

Mass burials have been taking place throughout the country as the authorities race against time to prevent the spread of disease from decomposing corpses.

Health officials have warned people not to drink running water for fear it may be contaminated.

Around 1,200 people are still reported missing, buried under the mud, and the final count is expected to be much higher.

The government has ordered 3,000 coffins from Colombia.

The authorities said that another 2,000 people were estimated to have been injured in the quake, which registered 7.6 on the Richter scale. More than 20,000 are homeless.

On Monday night President Francisco Flores urged his people in a national television broadcast to remain calm in the face of the repeated aftershocks, saying normality would soon return.

Rescue workers continued shifting through the debris at Las Colinas yesterday. Sniffer dogs and their Mexican handlers searched for traces of life.

But the desperate digging of the first hours after the quake on Saturday has given way to cautious determination: it is feared that further aftershocks could shake loose more of the surrounding hillside.

Oscar Flores, who has spent two days helping emergency workers to search for an old school friend and his family, said: "We've dug out two rooms and now we're moving on to clearing the garage.

"They must be somewhere in there."

But like an increasing number of people, Mr Flores admitted that he was slowly accepting the fate of his friends.

"I want to make this effort, so that afterwards no one can say that I didn't at least try to find their bodies."

Angry residents have been blaming the government for the mudslide.

Despite their warnings it allowed more houses to be build on the side of the mountain above the buried suburb.

Ricardo Navarro, an ecologist, said: "We said hundreds of times to the government and the construction industry that the tree line on this hillside should not be destroyed ... But several urbanisation projects were born, and there you have the results."

"This disaster could have been avoided," Tomas Castellano, 64, said as tears welled in his eyes.

"I can only think of my two little grandchildren who died here."

Mike Lanchin in San Salvador

The GuardianTramp

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