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Red Cross puts Myanmar cyclone death toll at 220

AFP, 3 June 2004

Yangon: The death toll from last month's cyclone which devastated Myanmar's west coast has risen to 220 with 14,000 people homeless, the Red Cross said Thursday ahead of launching an emergency appeal for relief aid.

"There are 220 people dead," Uma Narayanan, acting head of delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Yangon, told AFP, citing figures reported to the agency by government officials.

She added that an "unknown" number of people were missing from the worst cyclone to hit the coastal communities of Rakhine state, near Bangladesh, in nearly 40 years.

"We are going to launch an international appeal which will go out to Red Cross societies around the world, either today or early tomorrow, and our target is for basic food and non-basic food items," she said.

The appeal was expected to raise 120,000 dollars worth of aid, she said.

Red Cross officers and volunteers were on site in Sittwe, one of the hardest hit townships whose harbour was devastated by the storm, and confirmed official reports of severe damage to buildings such as schools and homes, Narayanan said.

Several roads have been washed away in the storm's tidal surges, and at least 200 boats were destroyed, the Red Cross federation said.

The social welfare ministry among other government agencies has reported damage to 300 schools and 2,800 houses, it said.

"Water supplies have been contaminated and the threat of water-borne diseases remains high," it said in a statement.

The updated death toll marked a significant increase from last Friday's assessment by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which reported from Geneva that more than 140 people were dead or missing.

UNICEF had also stated that 18,000 people were left homeless by the storm, which whipped across the Bay of Bengal and struck mainly at four townships on May 19.

The UN agency said Myanmar had made a surprise plea for international assistance, asking 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 has already begun relief missions to the area.

"We have dispatched a series of relief supplies, particularly drugs to prevent cholera, malaria and diarrhea for a population of 20,000 people," UNICEF information officer Jason Rush said.

About 3,000 corrugated iron roofing sheets were also distributed to health centres, schools, and homes, he added.
At least 84 ships or fishing boats were lost at sea leading to an unknown number of casualties.

"Information is still a bit hard to come by," Rush said.

Military-run Myanmar is known for under-reporting natural disasters or accidents such as ferry sinkings and fires and only rarely seeks foreign help.

The junta broke its silence on the disaster a full 10 days after the storm, and while it admitted in state media that people were killed it did not report specific casualty figures.

Tropical storms routinely lash Rakhine state -- a key fishing area -- during the monsoon season, which begins in May and can last for several months.

The worst storm on recent record there was a 1968 cyclone which killed 1,037 people and destroyed a quarter-million homes, according to the Japan-based Asian Disaster Reduction Center.



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