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Aid Agencies Fear Burma Tsunami Toll Will Rise

  • Ron Corben

International aid agencies hope to visit coastal areas of southern Burma to assess tsunami damage, as fears rise that the country's death toll will be much higher than the military government has reported. Relief workers say it may be days before a full picture becomes clear.

Foreign aid workers are struggling to independently assess the tsunami damaged suffered on Burma's southwestern coast on December 26.

Burma's military government's official Myanma Ahlin newspaper says the waves killed 53 citizens, injured 43 and left 21 missing.

But aid agencies fear the toll of dead and missing may be much higher given the loss of life elsewhere in the region. More than 150,000 people are thought to have died in at least 12 Indian Ocean nations.

Tony Branbury, the U.N. World Food Program regional director in Bangkok, says early assessments indicate the damage in Burma may be extensive. Mr. Branbury says so far WFP has only been able to reach the Irrawaddy regions south of Rangoon.

"Upon arrival we immediately figured out that there were approximately 10,000 people in need of immediate food aid," he said. "So we added them to our list."

The WFP has increased the numbers in need of food assistance to 30,000 - indicating much more damage than officials have so far acknowledged.

Burma's government allows outside aid groups and foreign officials only very limited access to the country. The military also tightly controls the media and in the past has tried to prevent news leaking about its economic woes, its efforts to suppress political dissidents and other problems.

Teams from major international aid agencies, including Doctors Without Borders, the United Nations Children's Fund and WFP have been hoping to travel from Rangoon to carry out a full assessment.

But flights have been canceled and the assessment teams may be forced to travel to the regions by car - a journey of at least two days. International aid workers also have yet to obtain permission to visit Burma's most remote, low-lying islands. The WFP fears hundreds of fishermen on the islands may have perished.

Aid agencies say a major concern is the lack of clean drinking water; many water tanks used to collect rainwater have been destroyed.

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