From: Anis Ahmed -Reuters
Published November 16, 2007 08:35 AM

Bangladesh cyclone toll tops 500

DHAKA (Reuters) - A severe cyclone has killed more than 500 people in Bangladesh and left thousands injured or missing, triggering an international relief effort on Friday to help the army-backed interim government cope with the disaster.

Local officials and Red Crescent workers said 508 deaths have been confirmed. Hundreds more were injured or missing after Cyclone Sidr struck overnight packing winds of 250 kph (155 mph).

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The Category 4 cyclone triggered a 15-foot (5-metre) high tidal surge that devastated three coastal towns and forced 3.2 million people to evacuate, officials and aid agencies said.

"The death count is rising fast as we get more information from the affected districts," a food and disaster ministry said. He put the latest official confirmed death toll at 247.

The tidal surge inundated Patuakhali, Barguna and Jhalakathi, cutting off communication links to the three towns. An official in Dhaka had no information yet about casualties from the area.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told reporters in Geneva 1,000 fishermen were missing.

"Significant damage is expected. However, information collection on casualty and damage figures is still very much in the early stages," OCHA spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said.

Most deaths were caused by collapsing houses and flying debris, officials in Dhaka said.

MISSING FISHING BOATS

At least 150 trawlers have been reported missing. Though authorities had broadcast repeated storm warnings, many of the missing boats might have been small vessels without radios.

Across the devastated region, trees and power poles were uprooted, disrupting communication and electricity supplies.

"We have been virtually blacked out all over the country," said a disaster management official in southern Mongla.

The Bangladeshi navy launched search and rescue operations, while four helicopters loaded with emergency relief supplies have been dispatched to some of the worst-hit areas, officials said.

Around 30,000 volunteers mobilised by Bangladesh Red Crescent used bullhorns, beat drums and used a special flag system to spread evacuation warnings, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in Geneva.

The U.N.'s World Food Programme said it was sending 98 metric tonnes of high-energy biscuits, enough for 400,000 people for three days.

"The urgent needs are food, water purification tablets and medicines," WFP spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume said.

Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief of the army-backed interim government, flew to devastated coastal districts on the Bay of Bengal on Friday to see the extent of the damage, officials said.

The cyclone, which followed devastating floods in July-September that killed more than 1,000, posed a new challenge to the interim administration, whose main task is to hold free and fair national elections before the end of next year.

NOW A TROPICAL STORM

By early Friday the storm had weakened to a tropical storm and had moved well inland northeast of Dhaka drenching the rest of the country with rain.

Agriculture officials said rice and other crops in the cyclone-battered areas had been badly damaged, adding to the suffering of villagers who had lost two crops in the floods.

"Life shall never be easy," said Mohammad Salam, a farmer in Khulna. "We are destined to suffer."

Storms batter the poor, disaster-prone country every year. A severe cyclone killed half a million people in 1970, while another in 1991 killed 143,000. Many of the country's 140 million people live around the low-lying river deltas that criss-cross the country and are especially vulnerable to tidal surges.

The cyclone blew past India's eastern coast without causing much damage, police and weather officials there said on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Nizam Ahmed and Azad Majumder in Dhaka and Reuters stringers in Barisal and Khulna, Bappa Majumdar in Kolkata and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; editing by Bill Tarrant)

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