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May 18, 2008

Dead toll soars past 130,000 and still rising

Nargis became the third most devastating cyclones to have hit Asia in the last 50 years as Myanmar's junta took diplomats on a tour of the storm-ravaged Irrawaddy delta on Saturday as the toll of the dead and missing soared above 133,000 people, reported Reuters.

Only two other Asian cyclones have exceeded Nargis in terms of human cost -- a 1970 storm that killed 500,000 people in neighbouring Bangladesh, and another that killed 143,000 in 1991, also in Bangladesh.

However, with an estimated 2.5 million people clinging to survival in the delta, and the military government refusing to admit large-scale outside relief, disaster experts say Nargis’ body count could yet rise dramatically.

British officials say the actual toll may already be more than 200,000. Cases of cholera, endemic to much of the former Burma, have been found although the outbreaks are no more than would normally be seen at this time of year, health officials said.

With heavy tropical downpours continuing to hamper the aid effort on Saturday, the generals took Yangon-based diplomats into the delta to see the army's relief operations, although it was expected to be a stage-managed and highly sanitised trip.

One envoy who went on a similar tour of a storm-hit district of Yangon, the former capital, described the neat rows of tents on display as "happy camps". In the delta, the junta will have to work much harder to keep the diplomats away from the destitute.

"The situation has worsened in just two days," one aid volunteer said as children mobbed his vehicle, their grimy hands reaching through the window for something to eat.

In a rare sign of agreement with international aid agencies, the junta sharply raised its toll from the May 2 disaster on Friday night to 77,738 dead and another 55,917 missing.

People in Myanmar are snapping up bootleg video discs of bloated corpses, desperate refugees and ravaged villages to get a fuller picture of the situation.

"Myanmar television is useless," said one Yangon businessman who bought the underground VCDs because he wanted to see the raw, uncensored version of the storm that killed his brother in Labutta, one of the hardest-hit towns in the Irrawaddy delta.

Meanwhile, the military, which has ruled unchecked for the last 46 years, continues to insist it is capable of handling aid distribution, seemingly out of fear an influx of foreigners might loosen its vice-like grip on power.

With international concern and frustration mounting, a parade of envoys has been flying in to try to coax the generals out of their deep distrust of the outside world.

The latest is the UN' top humanitarian official, John Holmes, expected to arrive in Yangon on Sunday and meet Prime Minister Thein Sein, the fourth-highest ranking junta member.

Holmes will be carrying a third letter from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to junta supremo Than Shwe, who has repeatedly ignored Ban's requests for a conversation, a spokeswoman said.

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