Yangon (AFP) May 6, 2008
Myanmar said Monday more than 10,000 people died in the cyclone that battered the impoverished nation, whose secretive military rulers made a rare appeal for international help to cope with the tragedy.
Reeling from the weekend disaster, which also left thousands missing, the Southeast Asian country once known as Burma -- one of the world's poorest -- warned that the staggering death toll could still rise further.
"There could be more casualties," said Nyan Win, foreign minister of the military junta which has ruled the country with an iron fist for decades, and normally puts tight restrictions on aid agencies from the outside world.
"We will welcome help like this from other countries, because our people are in difficulty," he said.
Governments around the world pledged help for a country that has more often earned the ire of the international community, not least for keeping democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in detention for much of the past two decades.
Even the United States, which tightened sanctions on Myanmar in the wake of a crackdown on anti-junta protests last year in which the UN says 31 people were killed, offered emergency aid and put a disaster response team on standby.
But US First Lady Laura Bush accused the regime of failing to issue a "timely warning" to those in the path of one of the worst storms here in recent memory.
State television showed images of entire communities that had flooded since Tropical Cyclone Nargis struck late Friday near the mouth of the Ayeyawaddy (Irrawaddy) river, about 220 kilometres (140 miles) southwest of Yangon.
"According to the latest information, more than 10,000 people were killed," Nyan Win said after briefing foreign diplomats.
"Information is still being collected, and there could be more casualties."
The United Nations said hundreds of thousands of people had been left homeless when the storm, packing winds of 190 kilometres (120 miles) per hour, ripped through the countryside, destroying entire villages.
Thousands of buildings were flattened as the cyclone tore power lines to shreds, uprooted trees that blocked key roads and disrupted water supplies in the main city and former capital, Yangon.
"I haven't seen anything like this in my whole life," one elderly resident told AFP.
The disaster looked set to put even more pressure on the precarious food supply in the region, with the damage to Myanmar's rice-producing regions not yet known. Myanmar notably has a deal to export rice to Sri Lanka.
As fears mounted that the toll would rise sharply, aid organisations were battling the devastation on the ground and the difficulties of getting supplies and personnel into one of the world's most isolated nations.
"If we look at the emergency needs for shelter and drinking water, there are several hundred thousand people who will need urgent assistance," Richard Horsey, a UN official in neighbouring Thailand, told AFP.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was "very much alarmed" by news of the high death toll, vowing that the world body would "do whatever (necessary) to provide urgent humanitarian assistance."
A spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the ruling generals had "shown their disposition to receive international aid" but that methods of delivery had not been decided.
In Washington, Bush echoed calls made by Britain and Germany, urging the junta not to delay accepting the global offers of help.
"The United States stands prepared to provide an assistance team and much-needed supplies to Burma, as soon as the Burmese government accepts our offer," she told a White House news conference.
"The government of Burma should accept this team quickly, as well as other offers of international assistance."
The European Union released two million euros (three million dollars) in initial emergency aid. Germany, India, Japan, Norway and Sweden also quickly pledged to help.
The military government said Saturday's referendum on a new constitution intended to usher in democracy would go ahead, but many residents said they had more pressing problems.
"We don't want any democracy," said one man queuing urgently at a neighbour's well. "We just want water now."
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