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Food riots as India cyclone death toll rises

RESCUERS FOUND bodies dangling from trees and floating in pools of water yesterday, three days after one of India's worst cyclones. Thousands were feared dead in eastern Orissa state alone.

After three days without food, shelter or clean drinking water, villagers gazed up at the sky as helicopters dropped packets of protein-rich food. Military boats appeared on the horizon to evacuate those marooned on housetops.

Officials began counting the dead and searching for the missing. Unofficial estimates put the death toll at 3,000 to 5,000. But the worst affected areas remained inaccessible, indicating the death toll could be much higher.

As heavy rains began to abate, air, rail and road links were slowly restored to major cities. But telephone and electricity lines still remained inoperable.

Food riots erupted in Bhubaneswar, the Orissa state capital, which had no power, drinking water or fresh food. There were reports of residents looting vehicles carrying emergency relief. In Bhuban-eswar alone, 200,000 people - nearly one in six residents - lost their homes and entire slums were washed away. "There is a complete breakdown of law and order. Police are inadequate," said the Defence Minister, George Fernandes, after visiting some of the affected areas.

Millions were left homeless by what meteorologists classed as a "super cyclone" with winds reaching 155mph and tidal waves that ravaged 87 miles of Orissa's coast on Friday. It was the second cyclone to whirl in from the Bay of Bengal in two weeks and one of the strongest this century. The International Red Cross has appealed for emergency aid and the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, pledged support for victims.

Outside the city of Baleshwar on the northern fringe of the disaster zone, hundreds camped by the road under plastic sheets, many huddling with cattle rescued from their villages. Some clutched small pouches of rice and powdered grain distributed from army trucks.

Desperate farmers ripped a 300ft gash in the main coastal road to try draining their fields of sea water - a breach that will take days to repair, an engineer said.

"This is the worst flooding in 100 years. I would say it is the worst in India's history," said Asim Kimar Vaishnav, the chief administrator of Baleshwar.