Death toll mounts as floods devastate Bangladesh

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Bangladesh from the air looks like a drowned world. The region around the capital, Dhaka, is experiencing its usual monsoon flooding, with those in outlying areas taking to higher ground in the way they have every rainy season for as far back as anyone can remember.

Bangladesh from the air looks like a drowned world. The region around the capital, Dhaka, is experiencing its usual monsoon flooding, with those in outlying areas taking to higher ground in the way they have every rainy season for as far back as anyone can remember.

But Bangladesh's real flood disaster this year has hit the south-west of the impoverished country, a region which even the catastrophic floods of 1998, the worst in the country's history, spared. According to one report yesterday, 3 million Bangladeshis in these south-western "unions" or regions have been forced from their homes, dozens have drowned and hundreds more are missing. Across the border in India's West Bengal state, 16 million people have lost their homes.

Yesterday at least 50 more people were missing feared drowned, after five fishing boats sank in the Bay of Bengal where a depression brought 10 inches of rainfall in southeastern Chittagong region between Sunday and yesterday.

The effect of the flood has been gravely aggravated because it happened so suddenly and without warning.Indian farmers or paramilitaries opened dam gates and barrages to prevent them from bursting under the pressure of water. The result: flash floods crashing across the border, forcing bewildered and ill-prepared peasants to flee in their hundreds of thousands.

In West Bengal, as the waters began to recede yesterday, corpses discovered in the mud pushed the death toll to more than 900. A district magistrate, Vivek Kumar, told Reuters by phone from the worst-hit area, Murshidabad, 150 miles north of Calcutta: "We are removing dead bodies on a war footing. Many thousands of cattle have died and as the water recedes more will be discovered."

The floods in south-west Bangladesh are the worst in 50 years, and along the border with India at Satkhira, Bangladeshi troops stood guard over an embankment of the Sonai river to deter Indian villagers from breaching it to relieve the flood-swollen channel. Water wars have not broken out along this border - relations between India and Bangladesh remain warm - but tension is rising as resentment builds.

In another Bangladeshi border district, Chaudanga, the local authorities had warned that a flood from across the border was on the way, but many people refused to believe it. One farmer from the district of Darshana, Aftab Ali, speaking from a makeshift relief camp in the town of Alamdanga, said "Croplands were inundated within a few hours. Many people were taken by surprise."

Although they had issued warnings, the local authorities were themselves unprepared for the devastation. Emergency supplies of food quickly ran out, many old people and children, unable to walk miles to shelter, were marooned, and those who managed to escape to higher ground soon ran out of provisions. "There is no food or drinking water in the flooded areas," said one victim. "The village markets have been washed away."

For many of the terrified villagers it was the first time in their lives that they had experienced a flood.

Yesterday the water level on the Indo-Bangladeshi border was said by one district official to be falling "very slowly", but in the low-lying areas there was no improvement.

The Bangladeshi authorities have been throwing all they have got into the relief effort, with the army and navy rescuing thousands of marooned people, and medical teams treating hundreds of people suffering from intestinal and water-borne diseases. The Red Cross and Red Crescent have sent food packages and stepped up other relief activities, but many of the flood victims have not eaten for days.

Bangladesh has appealed to the international community for help. But government efforts to tackle the disaster were complicated yesterday by an opposition-led general strike.

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