Tens of thousands feared dead as new cyclone nears

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The Independent Online

Tens of thousands of people are believed to have died in the Mozambique flood disaster and the final toll could approach hundreds of thousands as another cyclone approaches from the Indian Ocean and further rains are predicted in the Southern Africa region.

Tens of thousands of people are believed to have died in the Mozambique flood disaster and the final toll could approach hundreds of thousands as another cyclone approaches from the Indian Ocean and further rains are predicted in the Southern Africa region.

Despite an outpouring of sympathy, especially from Britain and the United States, for the country's people, thousands of them are without food and water and still praying for rescue six days after the last deluge. Little of the international aid response has materialised.

A World Food Programme spokesperson said 17 helicopters and 10 aircraft were on survey and rescue work, but yesterday the seven British-funded South African helicopter crews were still doing most of the work, supported by a small team from Malawi.

The only other aircraft in evidence over the flood-hit area had been chartered by aid agencies and journalists.

The government has not revised its casualty figure - 150 people - for more than a week, and deaths in Zimbabwe and South Africa have augmented it to 350. But the real death toll, based on evidence from pilots overflying the worst-hit areas is likely to exceed 10,000. Not all areas have been surveyed.

Major Augustine Masamba, heading the Malawian helicopter teams in Beira, in the northern zone of the flood, said: "We are talking about thousands. Sometimes you do not see any bodies for hours because the current is so strong and the water brown.

"Many people - maybe most of them - must have been trapped and died in their huts when the flash flood came last weekend. We can only see the straw roofs which collapsed as the mud walls disintegrated in the water. Sometimes you see a collection of bodies. Two days ago, the Save river mouth was clogged with human corpses and dead cattle."

The accumulation of soil being washed towards the sea by the raging current will have buried many bodies. The final death toll may never be known.

The United Nations estimates that between 800,000 and one million people have lost their homes in the worst-affected provinces - Inhambane, Maputo, Sofala, Manhica and Gaza, an area the size of the Scotland and Wales. The 1994 census shows 4.9 million people live there.

In airlifts by South African pilots, 6,500 people have been plucked from trees and buildings. Tens of thousands of others have made it to dry land by wading through chest-high water. No one can say how many people are gathered on dry land or in the 40-odd reception areas.

Inyene Udoyen, of the World Food Programme, says the huge discrepancy in numbers, explains why "we can't count. We are not even trying. You cannot track this visually because the bodies cannot be seen from the air". His view was confirmed by António Macheve, the spokesman for the Mozambique Disaster Relief Institute.

"I think the figure will exceed 200," he said. "Those we have registered as dead, 150, were in Maputo when the floods were here. We are not doing this kind of work at the moment."

The prime minister, Pascoal Mocumbi, said two days ago: "The velocity of the water is moving faster than the rate at which we can provide relief. We will only be able to count the dead when we have been able to interview all the survivors." Registration of survivors in regroupment centres was continuing yesterday.

In the next three days, it will be clear whether Cyclone Gloria - now over Madagascar - will hit Inhambane, which is already partly under water and where many refugees are reported to be fleeing on foot.

As rains continue in South Africa and Zimbabwe - on a front which is approaching Mozambique in a bow from the west, there is concern about the state of yet another river. The River Chiré, a tributary of the Zambezi which flows out of Lake Niassa in Malawi, was yesterday reported to be bursting its banks.

* Representatives of several southern African governments will meet in Pretoria, South Africa today. Representatives from Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, will attend the meeting, organised by the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

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