Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Myanmar says cyclone death toll tops 22,000
Posted: 06 May 2008 2136 hrs
YANGON: More than 22,000 people were killed in Myanmar's devastating cyclone and 41,000 are still missing four days after the storm slammed into the country's southern coast, the government said on Tuesday.
Aid workers were racing to deliver food and water to the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta region, which was submerged by floodwaters, leaving scenes of utter devastation with homeless survivors running low on food and water.
Witnesses described horrific images of rice fields littered with corpses, and there were fears the death toll from tropical cyclone Nargis could rise much further.
Save the Children, one of the few relief agencies allowed to operate in the secretive and impoverished Southeast Asian country, said the toll would rise sharply in the coming days as more victims were found in hard-to-reach areas.
"If at this stage, only four days in, the government are telling us the numbers are already reaching over 20,000 and there are 40,000 people missing, I think it could well go higher," spokesman Dan Collinson told AFP.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it went as high as 50,000," he said.
US President George W. Bush urged Myanmar to allow in international help, as Washington - usually one of the junta's toughest critics - upped its total emergency aid offer to 3.25 million dollars.
"Our message is to the military rulers: let the United States come to help you, help the people," Bush said.
"The United States has made an initial aid contribution, but we want to do a lot more," he added as he signed a law giving Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal, the US Congress's top civilian honour.
A US disaster relief team was on standby, and the Pentagon said four naval ships currently participating in military exercises off the coast of Thailand could be redirected to Myanmar, if the junta gave the go-ahead.
"But that's all we can do at this point, is to plan, because we have not received a request from the Burmese government," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.
The junta - facing mounting global pressure to quickly allow aid teams into the country - still insisted foreign relief workers would have to negotiate before being allowed to enter, as agencies waited for visas for their staff.
The ruling generals also defied calls to postpone Saturday's referendum on a new constitution - part of its slow-moving "road map" to democracy - saying it would proceed except in the areas hardest hit by the disaster.
Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy reacted angrily, saying it was "extremely unacceptable" for the vote to go ahead when storm survivors were in desperate need of assistance.
In the government's first news conference since Nargis barrelled into the Irrawaddy region early Saturday, it said 95 percent of the homes in the delta town of Bogalay had been washed away.
"Many people were killed in a 12-foot (3.5-metre) tidal wave," Social Welfare Minister Maung Maung Swe told reporters.
State television said 21,793 people were killed and 40,695 were missing in Irrawaddy division, while 671 were killed and 359 people were missing in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city and the former capital.
Satellite images from US space agency NASA showed virtually the entire coastal plain of the country, one of the world's poorest nations, under water.
Christian relief organisation World Vision said its teams had witnessed horrific scenes.
"They saw the dead bodies from the helicopters, so it's quite overwhelming," said Kyi Minn, an adviser to World Vision's office in Yangon.
Video footage of the disaster zone showed flattened villages, smashed bridges, and survivors forced to live out in the open.
Aid groups were rushing to bring food, water, clothing and shelter into the country, whose military rulers have long turned their back on the outside world - and prevented many aid charities from operating here.
"Getting it out to the affected populations will be a major challenge, given that there is widespread flooding," said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Bangkok.
"The urgent need is for shelter and for water. Without clean drinking water, the risk of disease spreading is the most serious concern."
The UN's World Food Programme said it had begun distributing 800 tonnes of food to the hardest-hit areas including Yangon, but that many coastal regions remained cut off due to flooding and road damage.
Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, the regime's information minister, said the country was "greatly thankful" for the offers of help that have been pouring in from around the world.
But Myanmar faced criticism over its apparent lack of preparation for the disaster, with US First Lady Laura Bush saying the government had not done enough to warn citizens the storm was approaching. - AFP/ir/de