Monday, May 05, 2008

Expects 10,000 deaths in cyclone. Hundreds of thousands 'in dire need'

YANGON, Myanmar - The death toll from the cyclone that ravaged Myanmar is expected to reach 10,000, a top official said Monday, with at least 4,000 people already listed as killed and nearly 3,000 others unaccounted for.

Foreign Minister Nyan Win told foreign diplomats at a briefing that the death toll could reach 10,000, according to diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was held behind closed doors.

The basic message was that they believe the provisional death toll was about 10,000 with 3,000 missing,” a diplomat present at the meeting told Reuters in Bangkok.

Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the Southeast Asian country, also known as Burma, early Saturday with winds of up to 120 mph, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless.

In the former capital Yangon, food and fuel prices have soared as aid agencies scrambled to deliver emergency supplies and assess the damage in the five declared disaster zones, home to 24 million people.

The government had previously put the death toll countrywide at 351 before increasing it Monday to 3,939.

A radio station broadcasting from the country’s capital, Naypyitaw, said that 2,879 more people are unaccounted for in a single town, Bogalay, in the country’s low-lying Irrawaddy River delta area where the storm wreaked the most havoc.

Reports are coming out of the delta coast, particularly the Irrawaddy region, that in some villages up to 95 percent of houses have been destroyed,” said Matthew Cochrane at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Geneva headquarters.

Widespread destruction is obviously making it more difficult to get aid to people who need it most,” said Michael Annear, regional disaster management coordinator for the federation.

The situation in the countryside remained unclear because of poor communications and roads left impassable by the storm.

Hundreds of thousands 'in dire need'

It’s clear that we’re dealing with a very serious situation. The full extent of the impact and needs will require an extensive on-the-ground assessment,” said Richard Horsey, a spokesman in Bangkok, Thailand, for United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“What is clear at this point is that there are several hundred thousands of people in dire need of shelter and clean drinking water,” Horsey said.

U.N. agencies were working with the Red Cross and other organizations to see how it can help those affected by the cyclone. UNICEF spokeswoman Veronique Taveau said the U.N. children’s agency alone has five teams assessing the situation in the country.

The World Food Program has pre-positioned 500 tons of food in Yangon and plans to bring in more relief supplies, said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

At a meeting with foreign diplomats and representatives of U.N. and international aid agencies, Myanmar’s foreign ministry officials said they welcomed international humanitarian assistance and urgently need roofing materials, plastic sheets and temporary tents, medicine, water purifying tablets, blankets and mosquito nets.

Neighboring Thailand announced that it would fly some aid in Tuesday.

In Washington, the State Department said the U.S. Embassy in Yangon had authorized an emergency contribution of $250,000 to help with relief efforts. But it added that the Myanmar government initially had refused to allow a U.S. Disaster Assistance Response Team into the country to assess damage.

“We have a DART team that is standing by and ready to go into Burma to help try to assess needs there,” deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters. “As of this moment, the Burmese government has not given them permission, however, to go into the country so that is a barrier to us being able to move forward.

Two Indian naval ships loaded with food, tents, blankets, clothing and medicines would sail for Yangon soon, Indian’s Ministry of External Affairs said.

Largest city hit hard

The cyclone blew roofs off hospitals and schools and cut electricity in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon. Older citizens said they had never seen the city of some 6.5 million so devastated in their lifetimes.

With the city’s already unstable electricity supply virtually nonfunctional, citizens lined up to buy candles, which doubled in price, and water since lack of electricity-driven pumps left most households dry. Some walked to the city’s lakes to wash.

Many roofs were ripped off even sturdy buildings, suggesting damage would be severe in the shanty towns that lie on the outskirts of the city of 5 million people.

At the city’s notorious Insein prison, soldiers and police killed 36 prisoners to quell a riot that started when inmates were herded into a large hall and started a fire to try to keep warm, a Thailand-based human rights group said.

State television showed military and police units on rescue and cleanup operations in Yangon, but residents complained the junta’s response was weak.

“Where are the soldiers and police? They were very quick and aggressive when there were protests in the streets last year,” a retired government worker told Reuters, referring to protests led by Buddhist monks last year that were swiftly crushed
Hotels and richer families were using private generators but only sparingly, given the soaring price of fuel.

Many stayed away from their jobs, either because they could not find transportation or because they had to seek food and shelter for their families.

“Without my daily earning, just survival has become a big problem for us,” said Tin Hla, who normally repairs umbrellas at a roadside stand.

With his home destroyed by the storm, Tin Hla said he has had to place his family of five into one of the monasteries that have offered temporary shelter to those left homeless.

His entire morning was taken up with looking for water and some food to buy, ending up with three chicken eggs that cost double the normal price.

Vote to go ahead Saturday

Despite the havoc wreaked by Nargis, the military government indicated that a referendum on the country’s draft constitution would proceed as planned on May 10.

“It’s only a few days left before the coming referendum and people are eager to cast their vote,” the state-owned newspaper Myanma Ahlin said Monday.

At the meeting with diplomats, Relief Minister Maj. Gen. Maung Maung Swe said the vote could be postponed by “a few days” in the worst-affected areas. However, the foreign minister intervened to say the matter would be decided by the official referendum commission.

Pro-democracy groups in the country and many international critics have branded the constitution as merely a tool for the military’s continued grip on power.

Should the junta be seen as failing disaster victims, voters who already blame the regime for ruining the economy and squashing democracy could take out their frustrations at the ballot box.

The secretive military, bunkered in their isolated new capital of Naypyidaw, 240 miles north of Yangon, has ruled for 46 years and has been shunned by Western governments after a violent crackdown on Buddhist monk-led protests last September

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