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Over 200 dead as cyclone devastates Myanmar

Yangon, May 4, 2008

More than 200 people have been killed in military-ruled Myanmar by a Category 3 cyclone that ripped through Yangon and the Irrawaddy delta, where it flattened two towns, officials and state media said on Sunday.

Packing winds of 190 km (120 miles) per hour when it hit on Saturday morning, Cyclone Nargis devastated the former Burma's leafy main city, littering the streets with overturned cars, fallen trees and debris from battered buildings.

'Utter war zone,' one Yangon-based diplomat said in an email to Reuters in Bangkok. 'Trees across all streets. Utility poles down. Hospitals devastated. Clean water scarce.'    

A government official in Naypyidaw, the ruling general's new capital 240 miles (390 km) to the north, said the latest death toll was more than 200.

The BBC, citing a report on state television, said 243 people were dead and more than 20,000 homes were destroyed. State MRTV later said the death toll was 241, including 19 in Yangon and 222 killed in the hardest-hit Irrawaddy division southwest  of the former capital.

Official newspapers in Yangon said only one in four buildings were left standing in Laputta and Kyaik Lat, two towns deep in the rice-producing delta and accessible mainly by boat. There were no details of casualties.

In Yangon, many roofs were ripped off even sturdy buildings, suggesting damage would be severe in the shanty towns that sit on the outskirts of the sprawling riverside city of 5 million.

Foreign aid workers, whose movements are restricted by the ruling military junta, had not managed to reach many impoverished areas to assess the impact.

'I have never seen anything like it,' one retired government worker told Reuters. 'It reminded me of when Hurricane Katrina hit the United States.'    

Although the sun was shining by Sunday morning, the former capital was without power and water, and food prices had doubled, with many storeholders unsure of when they would be able to replenish stocks. Most shops had sold out of candles.

An Electricity Board official said it was impossible to know when the power supply -- hit-and-miss at the best of times in one of Asia's poorest countries -- would be restored.

'We still have to clear the mess,' the official, who did not want to be named, said.

United Nations disaster experts said it would be days before the full extent of the damage was known in a country ruled since 1962 by secretive and ruthless military regimes.

Bunkered down in Naypyidaw, the junta's top brass will almost certainly have avoided the worst of the storm.

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

The death toll could climb yet further as authorities slowly make contact with outlying towns and villages along the coast, where weather forecasters had predicted a storm surge of up to 12 feet (3.5 m).

They are also likely to uncover victims beneath some of the buildings that collapsed in Yangon under the force of the cyclone, which had been gathering steam for several days in the tropical waters of the Bay of Bengal.

'It was a direct hit on a major city,' said Terje Skavdal, regional head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

'The government did warn people to stay inside and that might have had an impact, but the material damage is enormous for sure,' Skavdal said.

The UN had made an offer of assistance but was yet to receive a response from the junta, he added. It remains to be seen what impact the storm will have on a referendum on an army-drafted constitution scheduled for May 10.

The charter is part of a 'roadmap to democracy' meant to culminate in multiparty electi


Tags: Burma | Mynamar | Yangon |

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