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Up to 10,000 dead, millions homeless in Bangladesh

November 17, 2007

BARGUNA, Bangladesh - Up to 10,000 people are dead and millions homeless and hungry in cyclone-hit Bangladesh, officials said Sunday, as the army and aid workers battled to reach the country's devastated coast.

Three days after cyclone Sidr tore into one of the world's poorest nations from the Bay of Bengal, rescue workers were still fighting their way through a landscape of flattened villages and traumatised crowds.

Survivors on the isolated southern coast, where many areas were still out of reach for aid convoys, warned they would soon die unless help arrived.

"I lost six of my family members in the cyclone. I am afraid that the rest three of us will die of hunger. We are without food and water for the last few days," said a 55-year-old farmer, Sattar Gazi.

"For the corpses, we don't even have clothes to wrap them in for burial... we are wrapping the bodies in leaves," he told AFP in a village situated on the Bay of Bengal coastline and smashed by a six-metre (20-foot) high tidal wave.

Abdul Zabbar, a 50-year-old teacher, said the situation in the area -- already one of the most impoverished places on earth -- was unbearable.

"There is no food and drinking water. Bodies are still floating in the rivers and paddy fields," he said, adding the rice harvest -- or four months of food -- had been washed away.

Victims told an AFP correspondent who managed to reach this coastal area that they had not seen any aid workers, let alone a plane or helicopter.

Officials said the humanitarian situation in coastal districts like Barguna, 200 kilometres (130 miles) south of the capital Dhaka, was catastrophic.

"I have never seen such a catastrophe in my 20 years as a government administrator," said district official Harisprasad Pal.

Squadron Leader Farhad Hossain Mahmud of the army control room said the latest confirmed death toll stood at 3,113.

"It may cross 5,000, but it will remain below 10,000," the chairman of the Bangladeshi Red Crescent Society, the country's central humanitarian organisation, told AFP.

Officials have stressed they expect many more victims will be found in remote areas, including around poor fishing villages in the string of small islands off the coast.

Aid efforts were being hampered by roads blocked by fallen trees and the sheer scale of the devastation.

"In the remote areas it is slow-going, they are almost chopping trees as they go along," said Douglas Casson Coutts of the World Food Programme, adding that officials were working with the military to organise air drops to the most inaccessible districts.

Red Cross and Red Crescent workers said they were using their network of volunteers to distribute dried food and plastic sheeting for temporary shelters, but that many helpers were themselves victims.

"Our estimate is that 900,000 families are affected," said Red Cross official Shafiquzzaman Rabbani.

That figure amounts to roughly seven million people -- no small task for the army helicopters and navy ships sent out to distribute food, medicine and relief materials.

Most of the deaths were caused by the tidal wave which engulfed coastal villages, as well as flying debris and falling trees that crushed flimsy bamboo and tin homes -- all that most people in Bangladesh can afford.

A stunned 25-year-old woman, Jahanara, recounted how she managed to cling to a tree as the storm ripped away everything around her, including her husband, two sons and mother, and even the clothes on her back.

Messages of condolence have been pouring in from abroad -- and pledges of aid are increasing, providing hope that the relief operation will soon swing into high gear.

The United States said Sunday it was sending two million dollars, with the European Commission and individual EU members also offering similar sums.

Bangladesh was also taking stock of the ecological cost -- with the Sunderbans, the world's biggest mangrove forest and home to the endangered Royal Bengal tiger, taking the brunt of the storm.

"The cyclone has inflicted an ecological disaster," said Shanti Ranjan Das of the government's livestock department.

The vast mangrove forest, listed as a World Heritage Site by the UN cultural organisation UNESCO, is a natural tide barrier crucial to the long-term survival of coastal communities.




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