Bangladesh cyclone toll nears 1000, hundreds missing

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DHAKA, Nov 17 (Reuters) Military ships and helicopters today were trying to reach thousands of survivors of a super cyclone that killed at least 900 people and pummeled the impoverished country with mighty winds and waves.

Cyclone Sidr smashed into Bangladesh's southern coastline late on Thursday night with 250-kph (155 mph) winds that whipped up a 5-metre tidal surge. It was the strongest cyclone since a 1991 storm killed some 143,000 people in this country.

Navy ships scoured coastal areas for hundreds of people reported missing and to clear river channels clogged with sunken vessels to restore normal navigation, officials said.

Helicopters flew sorties to devastated areas, dropping food, drinking water and medicine for the survivors.

The official death toll from the cyclone was more than 900 but some newspapers today gave figures between 1,100 and 2,000, quoting their reporters in the devastated areas.

''It will take several days to complete the search and know the actual casualty figure and extent of damage to property,'' said food and disaster ministry official Ayub Miah.

The US navy is reportedly ready to send two amphibious assault ships with helicopters to help in rescue efforts.

Bangladesh had yet to receive a formal offer from the US Navy, Foreign Secretary Touhid Hossain told Reuters. ''If we have, we will consider and take a decision.'' The US Navy helped after a devastating storm in 1991.

AID STARTS POURING IN Aid officials described damage from the storm, which blew away homes and ripped out trees and power lines, as extremely severe. Most of the country plunged into darkness yesterday after the electricity grid was knocked out. Parts of Dhaka, the capital city of 10 million people, were still without power today.

''Our relief teams have started emergency distribution, with an initial coverage of 100,000 people,'' said Vince Edwards, World Vision's Bangladesh national director. ''However, several areas are inaccessible right now due to fallen trees,'' a World Vision statement quoted Edwards as saying today.

In many areas, 95 per cent of the rice crops awaiting to be harvested in a few weeks have been badly damaged, officials said. Hundreds of shrimp farms were washed away, while vegetables, rice and pulses were also damaged.

''Many people are homeless, crops and livelihoods have been destroyed and this is going to put great pressure on the government, the economy, and the people themselves -- particularly as this comes only a few months after floods devastated the northern part of the country,'' said Suman SMA Islam, CARE's humanitarian assistance coordinator in Bangladesh.

Germany has allocated 293,000 dollars in emergency relief aid and the European Union has released 1.5 million euros (2.1 million dollar) in fast-track aid.

''This is a major tragedy with hundreds already known to have died and hundreds of thousands suffering from this disaster,'' said Louis Michel, the European Commissioner responsible for Development and Humanitarian Aid.

In New York, John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said his office would make available ''several million dollars'' in emergency aid.

MISSING AT SEA Red Crescent officials said some 1,000 fishermen were still unaccounted for in the Bay of Bengal, onboard about 150 boats.

Fishing community leaders in Cox's Bazar and Barisal said they still expected some of the missing crew to return safely.

In past storms, fishing boats took shelter in the Sundarban mangrove forests, said Shohel Ahmed, a Barisal fisherman.

The Sundarban, home to the endangered Royal Bengal tigers and a World Heritage site, took the brunt of the latest storm and forest officials said many wildlife could have died.

The Category 4 cyclone and the tidal surge it spawned devastated three coastal towns and forced 3.2 million people to evacuate, officials and aid agencies said.

Aid workers said the death toll would have been far higher if not for the good preparations by skilled rescuers and a volunteer army who spread warnings and helped evacuate people.

''I can imagine that this cyclone would have killed over 100,000 in (the early 1990s),'' says Kamal Akbar, executive director of aid agency RDRS Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has also set up several thousand cyclone shelters in recent years and all new schools are designed to function as flood shelters.

REUTERS SYU DS1305

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