Over 350 dead as cyclone batters Burma

Tropical cyclone Nargis killed over 350 people and caused widespread destruction across Burma, with tens of thousands more left homeless. Five southern and central regions have been declared disaster areas. (Report: N.Rushworth)


YANGON, May 5 (Reuters) - Authorities and foreign aid workers in army-ruled Myanmar struggled on Monday to assess the damage from a severe cyclone that killed more than 350 people and left tens of thousands homeless.


State media said 20,000 homes were destroyed on one island alone after Cyclone Nargis, a Category 3 storm packing winds of 190 km (120 mile) per hour, ripped through Myanmar’s Irrawaddy delta on Saturday.


The death toll is likely to climb as the authorities slowly make contact with islands and low-lying villages in the delta, the rice bowl of former Burma.


“The government is having as much trouble as anyone else in getting a full overview. Roads are not accessible and many small villages were hit and will take time to reach,” Terje Skavdal, regional head of U.N. office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), told Reuters in Bangkok.


Teams of foreign aid workers were trying to assess the damage and aid needs, but their access and movements are restricted by the military, which has ruled the former Burma for 46 years.


“That is the existing situation for international staff.  The way most agencies work is they use national staff who have more freedom to move,” Skavdal said.


“We will have a dialogue with the government to try to get access to the people affected,” he said.


In Yangon, many roofs were ripped off even sturdy buildings, suggesting damage would be severe in the shanty towns that lie on its outskirts.


State television was still off air in the former capital more than 48 hours after Nagris slammed into the city of 5 million. Clean water was becoming scare and with the electricity down, nost shops had sold out of candles.


In western Yangon, a group of 100 monks led efforts to clear streets littered with fallen trees and debris from battered buildings, a witness said.


“The clean up is beginning but this will take a long time.  The damage around town is intense,” one Yangon-based Western diplomat told Reuters.


State media said 19 people had been killed in Yangon and 222 in the delta, where weather forecasters had predicted a storm surge of as much as 12 feet (3.5 metres)


Official newspapers said only one in four buildings were left standing in Laputta and Kyaik Lat, two towns deep in the rice-producing region.


Some 90,000 people were left homeless on the island of Haingyi, around 200 km southwest of Yangon on the western fringes of the Irrawaddy delta.


United Nations disaster experts were due to meet in

Bangkok, the capital of neighbouring Thailand, later on Monday to assess Myanmar’s needs and how best to respond.


With many buildings damaged or destroyed, plastic sheeting was a high priority to provide shelter during the rainy season.


Water purification tablets, mosquito nets and cooking equipment would also be needed, Skavdal said.


Bunkered down in Naypyidaw, 240 miles to the north of Yangon, the junta’s top brass has not formerly responded to an offer of international assistance.


But UN officials met with Myanmar’s Minister of Social Welfare on Sunday “and the indication was assistance may be welcomed, but we need to understand the terms,” Skavdal said.


“I think it’s a positive sign. As long as we are in dialogue it is good,” he said.


The regime declared a disaster in five states and government television carried footage of soldiers clearing trees from roads and Prime Minister Thein Sein, a lieutenant-general, meeting people sheltering in a Buddhist pagoda.


State media said on Monday that a referendum on a new army-drafted constitution would go ahead on May 10 despite the cyclone.


“The referendum is only a few days away and the people are eagerly looking forward to voting,” the government said in a statement carried in the state media.


The charter is part of a “roadmap to democracy” meant to culminate in multiparty elections in 2010 and end nearly five decades of military rule. The opposition and Western governments say it allows the army to retain too much control.


Some flights to Yangon resumed on Monday.


Nargis had weakened as it moved into western and northern Thailand on Monday, where there were no reports of damage or casualties.

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