MAPUTO, March 8 (Reuters) - Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano said on Wednesday that dislodged mines could be the next killer his people face, but played down estimates of thousands killed in devastating floods.
Heavy rain and a fuel shortage forced the suspension of some helicopter aid flights from Maputo as Chissano held his first news conference since the floods hit on February 11.
A spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund UNICEF said on Tuesday that the floods and their aftermath of disease and hunger could push the death toll into the thousands, but Chissano said rescuers had so far recovered only 212 bodies.
"As the waters are still covering vast areas of the country, we cannot say this is the final figure," he said, adding that only 15 people had officially been reported missing.
Chissano said the next big killer could be mines left over from a 16-year civil war that have been dislodged by the floods.
"We appeal to our people to be careful and to report these mines when they see them," he said.
MINES HAVE SHIFTED
United Nations Development Programme official Omar Bakhet told BBC television in Maputo: "The difficulty is that many of those mines have been shifted because of the movement of the soil, so we don't know where those mines are."
Bakhet said Mozambique needed an emergency programme to find and disable the mines, which could maim people returning to their fields to replant crops destroyed in the flood.
Answering questions in Portuguese, English, French, Spanish and Swahili, Chissano declined to be drawn into criticism of foreign governments for their slow response to the floods.
The disaster has forced an estimated 241,000 people into 64 refugee camps. Another 750,000 are in need of aid.
The row about whether major nations reacted too late was rekindled by Nelson Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, widow of former President Samora Machel.
"...there'll always be a question why people took so long," she told the South African Broadcasting Corporation in Maputo.
"Always, we have to be dying in thousands...When we are dying in thousands, then they come running. It's always too late. There are thousands who could have been saved."
Major nations are already on the defensive, admitting that in the early days they underestimated how Mozambique's rivers would be swollen by rain in neighbouring countries.
But Chissano said he was grateful for the response:
"It is true that international aid came late, but we have also understood that although we made the appeal, it was not until the television images were received across the world that people understood the scope of the tragedy.
"We are happy that people have been sympathetic and that help is finally coming. We still have a huge workload ahead."
Helicopters have plucked more than 13,000 people from trees and rooftops during the flood. But fears that whole communities may have been left helpless were reinforced by reports from a missionary who arrived in Maputo after a 10-day trip.
South African Air Force Major Douglas Duncan told Reuters a plane would quickly check out the French Catholic missionary's report that 20,000 people in his community were still stranded.
"The priest says there were people dying of cholera and malaria when he left," he added.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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