Sunday, 4 May 2008

Casualties expected as cyclone hits Burma

Damage ... this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency shows fallen trees in Rangoon after Tropical Cyclone Nargis ripped through the city / AP

By Ed Cropley in Bangkok

A LARGE tropical cyclone that slammed into Rangoon toppled buildings and felled trees, a Thailand-based aid agency said, raising fears of major casualties in military-ruled Myanmar's main city.

The internet and land, mobile and satellite phone connections have been down since Cyclone Nargis's 190 km (120 mile) per hour winds hit on Saturday, making it impossible to confirm the extent of the damage in the sprawling river delta city of 5 million.

However, Kyaw Lin Oo of Burma Democratic Concern, an anti-regime activist and aid group in neighbouring Thailand, said he had spoken to a contact in Rangoon on Saturday evening after the worst of the storm passed at around 7 pm (1230 GMT).

"The whole city is in a very bad condition. All the trees have been uprooted and some buildings have fallen down near Yangon University," he told Reuters in the Thai capital.

The university lies in the heart of the former Burmese capital, and is one of its poshest districts.

On Saturday, a United Nations official in Bangkok said U.N. staff had managed to contact a colleague in Rangoon as the eye of the storm passed overhead in the afternoon.

"A lot of roofs from well-constructed buildings have been blown off. That would lead you to believe that less well-constructed buildings will have taken a really big whack," Tony Craig, regional emergency coordinator for the World Food Programme (WFP), told Reuters.

The Federation of Trade Unions, Burma, a Thailand-based labour rights group, said the ruling military junta had declared states of emergency in five affected provinces, most of them in the low-lying floodplains of the Irrawaddy delta.

State-run MRTV and Yangon City Radio were off the air, making it impossible to confirm the report.

A spokesman for Britain's Department for International Development (DFID), which has a staff of 10 in Burma, said it had not been able to establish the extent of damage because of poor communications, but that its people were safe.

Power is out

The electricity supply in Rangoon - hit-and-miss at the best of times in one of Asia's poorest countries - failed after Nargis drew near on Friday evening.

Meteorological officials warned of a possible storm surge of up to 12 feet (3.5 metres) in coastal areas, suggesting tens of thousands of people could be at risk.

The streets of Rangoon were virtually deserted, and buses and trains were not operating due to extensive flooding, a Reuters reporter in the city said before his communications were cut off.

A spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said officials from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Rangoon would meet with the Burma Red Crescent on Sunday to assess the damage.

It remains to be seen what impact the storm will have on a referendum on an army-drafted constitution scheduled for May 10.

The constitution is part of a "roadmap to democracy" meant to culminate in multiparty elections in 2010 and end nearly five decades of military rule. Critics say it gives the army too much control.

Naypyidaw, the generals' new capital, is 240 miles (390 km) north of Rangoon.

An official at Rangoon International Airport said all incoming flights had been diverted to the second city of Mandalay, in the middle of the southeast Asian nation, and all departures from Rangoon had been cancelled.

An official at Thai Airways in Bangkok said the airline planned to resume flights on Sunday, but was unable to give details of conditions on the ground in Burma.

Weather forecasters said Nargis was likely to keep moving northeast on Sunday and into northern Thailand, where a storm warning has already been issued.