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Myanmar breaks silence over deadly cyclone, says many dead and missing

AFP, 29 May 2004

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar's media reported for the first time on a cyclone that slammed the country's western coast 10 days earlier and, according to UN estimates, left at least 140 people dead or missing and 18,000 homeless.

Reports from the state-run media Saturday did not confirm the figures issued Friday by the United Nations' Children's Fund (UNICEF), which said Myanmar's military government had made a rare appeal for aid after the May 19 cyclone.

"There have been deaths and missing of people," The Mirror newspaper said, without providing details.

The storm, the worst to hit the region in nearly four decades, whipped over the Bay of Bengal near Myanmar's border with Bangladesh and struck several coastal townships in Rakhine state, according to official media and relatives of residents there.

One Myanmar security official told AFP there were unconfirmed initial reports that 200 people were missing, mainly fishermen who were caught out at sea.

Some 1,000 households in Myebon and Pauktaw townships and 150 in Sittwe township were affected by the storm, The Mirror said, giving no further figures.

"The Red Cross, led by the social welfare relief and resettlement ministry under the supervision of the western command commander, rushed to affected villages and are taking relief measures such as providing necessary items, and drinking water, and preventing waterborne diseases," it said.

Tropical storms routinely lash Rakhine state -- a key fishing area – during the monsoon season, which Yangon meteorological services said was to begin this year on May 20.

A resident of the region described a scene of utter devastation, her relatives told AFP.

A woman in the capital Yangon quoted her mother, who lives in the major port of Sittwe, saying: "We suffered a direct hit. Many, many people were killed, and we've never experienced anything as severe as this before."

Her mother said the cyclone was worse than one in 1968, the last major one to hit Myanmar. "I was in Sittwe when the cyclone hit in 1968, and I was told by my mother that this one was worse," the woman told AFP.

Her mother said most of the dwellings along the shoreline were destroyed, including a major fishmarket, while Sittwe's harbour for seafaring vessels was damaged, she said.

The papers made no mention of Myanmar's surprise plea for international assistance, reported by UNICEF from Geneva on Friday.

"More than 140 people are reported dead or missing due to the cyclone," UNICEF said in a statement.

Myanmar's government had asked for 200 tonnes of rice, 4,000 tarpaulin sheets for temporary shelters, medical supplies, rain water collection tanks and 18,000 blankets and sets of clothes, UNICEF said.

At least 84 ships were lost at sea as well as an ocean liner, while on land 2,000 cattle were killed and rice mills were blown down, triggering price rises for rice of up to 70 percent in some areas, the agency said.

Many hospitals and schools were affected and telephone lines were down, while electricity supplies were patchy at best and many affected families could not afford to rebuild their bamboo homes, UNICEF said.

Military-run Myanmar is known for under-reporting or downplaying natural disasters or accidents, and only rarely seeks foreign help.

Last year the worst flooding in 30 years affected up to a million acres (404,700 hectares) of land throughout the impoverished country and left thousands homeless, but the disaster was largely unreported until after relief measures had been launched.



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