Death toll for Burma cyclone nearly doubles

Heavy rains also hold up relief efforts

A Marine walked past boxes of packaged water on the USS Essex, south of Burma's Irrawaddy Delta. The USS Essex is stationed there pending permission to deliver relief goods. A Marine walked past boxes of packaged water on the USS Essex, south of Burma's Irrawaddy Delta. The USS Essex is stationed there pending permission to deliver relief goods. (Vivek Prakash/Reuters)
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Associated Press / May 17, 2008

RANGOON, Burma - The official death toll nearly doubled to 78,000 from Burma's killer cyclone as heavy rains yesterday lashed much of the area stricken two weeks ago, further hampering relief efforts.

Aid workers shackled by the country's military regime struggled to get even the most basic data about the needs of up to 2.5 million survivors. The Red Cross warned that a lack of clean water may swell the ranks of the dead.

Burma state television said the official death count from the May 3 cyclone was 77,738, with 55,917 others missing.

The toll was nearly double the 43,000 previously reported, but the TV announcement suggested it might be close to a final figure.

It said the government had "carried out search and rescue and relief work and collection of data, promptly, immediately, and extensively."

The release of the figures led to dire warnings from the United Nations and renewed calls for the military regime to allow international aid workers access to devastated areas.

"More than two weeks after the event, we are at a critical point," said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. "Unless more aid gets into the country - quickly - we face the risk of an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dramatically worsen today's crisis."

Burma's ruling junta put up a security cordon around Rangoon to restrict travel to the Irrawaddy Delta, where scenes of devastation were rife.

A small tour to the disaster zone arranged for today will give diplomats their first up-close look at the effects of the cyclone and at the government relief effort.

John Holmes, UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, was to go to Burma tomorrow in an attempt to persuade the junta to admit more UN relief workers and to greatly increase aid efforts, said Amanda Pitt, a UN spokeswoman in Bangkok.

The junta maintains it has the situation under control. But after two weeks, the UN remains largely in the dark about the situation on the ground.

"We simply don't have the information, and I can't say when we will have it," said Steve Marshall, a UN official who just left Burma.

The Red Cross has put the death toll as high as 128,000, and the most recent official figures on dead and missing have the UN saying the number could easily reach 130,000.

The highest death estimate is carried by the British government's Department for International Development, which says that "unofficial estimates suggest the number of dead or missing is in the region of 217,000." The department said the estimate was reported to it by sources on the ground with knowledge of the situation.

It gave no other details and said the estimates could not immediately be verified.

The UN estimates some 1.5 million to 2.5 million survivors are in desperate need of food, water, shelter, and medical care.

Burma is entering the monsoon season and disaster specialists warn the wet weather could complicate relief efforts. Heavy rain pelted the country yesterday.

Aid groups have reached 270,000 people, and the situation for survivors will probably get more difficult as time passes without proper help.

Lack of clean water will be deadly in the Irrawaddy Delta, Thomas Gurtner, the head of operations for the International Red Cross, told the Associated Press in Geneva.

"To be able to provide clean water to hundreds of thousands of people stranded in the delta requires a major operation, which we have neither the material, the logistical, nor the staff capacity to do," he said.

The US military flew four more flights of emergency supplies into Rangoon yesterday, raising its total to 17 since Monday.

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