Official Burma death toll doubles

The official death toll from Burma's killer cyclone nearly doubled to 78,000 today as aid workers shackled by the country's uncooperative military regime struggled to get even the most basic data about the needs of up to 2.5 million desperate survivors.

Heavy rains lashed much of the area stricken two weeks ago, further hampering already-delayed relief efforts.

Burma state television said the official death count from the May 3 cyclone was 77,738, with another 55,917 missing.

The Red Cross warned that the lack of clean water may increase the number of deaths.

The new toll was nearly double what had been previously reported, but the TV announcement suggested it might be close to a final figure. It said the government had "carried out search and rescue and relief work and collection of data, promptly, immediately and extensively".

The United Nations renewed calls for the junta to let international aid workers into devastated areas.

"More than two weeks after the event, we are at a critical point," said UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.

"Unless more aid gets into the country - quickly - we face the risk of an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dramatically worsen today's crisis."

Jean-Maurice Ripert, France's ambassador to the UN, criticised the junta for refusing to let a French navy ship deliver 1,500 tons of food and medication to the Irrawaddy delta using small boats.

He said refusing to let in aid "could lead to a true crime against humanity if we go on like that".

Burma's ruling junta, meanwhile, kept a tight lid on information. It put up a security cordon around the country's largest city, Rangoon, to restrict travel despite increasingly urgent calls from international aid organisations for clearance to get their workers to the Irrawaddy delta, where scenes of devastation were rife and corpses lie rotting where they died.

John Holmes, UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, is also to go to Burma to try to convince junta leaders to grant more access to UN relief workers and to massively step up aid efforts, said Amanda Pitt, a UN spokeswoman in Bangkok, Thailand.

Burma's junta has said it has the situation under control, but after two weeks, the UN remained largely in the dark about the situation on the ground.

"We simply don't have the information, and I can't say when we will have it," said Steve Marshall, a UN official who just came out of Burma.

The Red Cross fears the toll may be as high as 128,000; the UN estimates more than 100,000 died. The UN also estimates that about 1.5 million to 2.5 million survivors are desperately need food, water, shelter and medical care.

Burma is entering the monsoon season and disaster experts warn that could complicate relief efforts. Heavy rain pelted the country yesterday.

The situation for the survivors will probably worsen as more time passes without proper help.

Lack of clean water would be deadly in the Irrawaddy delta, Thomas Gurtner, the head of operations for the international Red Cross, said.

"To be able to provide clean water to hundreds of thousands of people stranded in the delta requires a major operation, which we have neither the material, the logistical nor the staff capacity to do," he said.

Officials remained deeply concerned about the possibility of disease outbreaks.

Earlier, the World Health Organisation said a few cases of cholera had been reported. Later however, WHO said Burma's ministry of health had not detected any cases beyond the norm there.

The junta has been especially sensitive about the distribution of aid and services by foreign citizens, and particularly with international organisations. It has opened its door just a crack to their help.

The US military flew four more flights of emergency supplies into Rangoon yesterday, raising its total to 17 since Monday. Two of the flights were filled with aid provided by the Thai government. India was also readying flights.

More on this topic

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Burma cyclone death toll rises to 84,500

Minister admits concerns over aid supplies to Burma

UN aid reaches cyclone-hit delta in Burma

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