MAPUTO (Reuters) - Aid officials tried Thursday to verify a report that 20,000 people stranded by floods in western Mozambique were marching along a shattered railway line toward Zimbabwe, while heavy rain slowed relief efforts.
South African media said a U.S. Air Force plane had confirmed a Roman Catholic priest's report that 20,000 refugees had been stranded at Malalane in the west by the country's worst flood on record.
But U.N. aid coordinator Rosa Malango said: ''We have contradictory reports from the people who originated this story on the 20,000. They are now not sure whether they saw 20,000 or they didn't see 20,000.
''The Americans are denying they ever told anyone they had seen 20,000 people on the march,'' she said.
In Beira, where U.S. Air Force relief teams arrived on Thursday, Major General Joe Werhle said: ''We don't want to get ahead of ourselves at this point.... There is evidence of people and sheltering. I cannot confirm numbers.''
Rain Hampers Aid Mission
Officials at Maputo airport, hub of a huge international relief mission, told reporters all civilian planes had been grounded due to bad weather.
Heavy rains battered Maputo overnight and Thursday, hampering efforts to reach an estimated 950,000 desperate survivors waiting for food and medical aid.
''Only military planes will be allowed to fly until we see an improvement in the weather,'' said a control tower official.
South African radio said some flights had to be aborted as rain cut visibility to dangerous levels. Maputo has no radar.
A South African Weather Bureau forecaster told Reuters very heavy rain was likely until Sunday in the most flooded areas.
Aid agencies are racing to deliver food, medicine and shelter to people uprooted from their homes. Many are without food or water despite the presence in Maputo of a multinational force of helicopters and boats.
Wednesday, scuffles broke out in the town of Palmeira, when thousands of famished people scrambled for high-protein biscuits delivered by British army helicopters.
Fear Over Landmines
U.N. Development Program director Omar Barkhet said his organization would soon launch a campaign to raise awareness of landmines left over from the country's 16-year civil war, which could have been dislodged by the floods.
''We will carry out a mines' awareness campaign before the displaced people are allowed to go back to their homes. We will also intensify our mapping and start emergency mine-clearing programs,'' he told Reuters.
He said the United Nations would coordinate a donors' conference in Europe next month to raise funds for reconstruction and map long-term economic strategies.
Officials from the U.N. World Health Organization were meeting government officials in Maputo to discuss the threat of cholera and malaria.
U.N. officials privately told Reuters the number of cholera cases had surpassed epidemic levels but that it was up to the government to make the announcement.
They said over 70 cases had been reported in Maputo alone, compared with the usual 10 at this season. The figure was higher in the flooded Gaza, Sofala and Inhambane provinces, they added.
President Joaquim Chissano says only 212 people have died in the floods but aid workers said deaths from disease and as more bodies were recovered from receding waters would push this figure sharply higher.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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