Mozambique Rescuers Battle With Mud, Politics

News and Press Release
Originally published
By Emma Thommason

MAPUTO, Mozambique (Reuters) - A weary multi-national relief force sought to forget politics and focus on aid efforts in stricken Mozambique Wednesday as U.N. head Kofi Annan called for a ''massive'' international rescue effort.

But as warnings rang out that the flood death toll could reach the thousands, one glimmer of hope emerged -- forecasts of yet more rain seem to have been exaggerated.

Heavy rains fell on Maputo overnight, but officials said that this was common for the time of year.

''It is the rainy season anyway, but we are concerned that if it did get worse, it could hamper our operation. But it hasn't reached that stage yet,'' World Food Program spokeswoman Lindsey Davies said.

Monday, foreign military officials said up to 50 helicopters were in the skies and 100 boats deployed in swollen waterways.

But the row about whether major nations reacted too little and too late when floods hit last month was rekindled by Nelson Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, a Mozambican, who blamed the international community for being slow to react.

Machel, widow of revered Mozambican liberation leader and former President Samora Machel and now former South African President Mandela's wife, castigated the West, the Organization of African Unity and the Southern African Development Community for their slow response.

Question Mark

''...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 and I really think whoever is there to make the decisions has to come back to that,'' she said.

Major nations were already on the defensive over the issue, admitting that in the early days they underestimated how Mozambique's rivers would be swollen by rain in neighboring countries like Zimbabwe.

South Africa, Britain, the Netherlands, France, Portugal, Spain, Libya, Lesotho, Malawi, Zambia and the United States are all in the country, where a million people have been affected by the floods.

Rights of international transit as well as logistic and maintenance problems in getting helicopters and planes to the area also caused delays.

In what appeared a bid to bring order to the situation, the commander of newly arrived U.S. military forces stressed his contingent would try to ''focus'' the relief effort.

U.S. Major-General Joe Wehrle told reporters that a first priority would be to map ''hot spots'' where people were at risk.

Using infra-red cameras, the 600-member U.S. contingent would also identify road and rail breaks that could be repaired quickly so aid could be speeded up instead of relying almost solely on air lifts.

Us Writes Off Debt

The United States said it was prepared to write off the southern African state's bilateral debt.

The gesture involves a relatively small amount of money -- Washington has already said it was prepared to forgive 90 percent of Mozambique's U.S. debt -- and will be implemented in conjunction with international debt-relief arrangements.

Mozambique has foreign debts of some $5 billion, much of it to Russia, a close ally during the Cold War.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Annan said the flooding was all the more tragic because the country was considered an African success story.

''It is bitterly ironic that the Economist Intelligence Unit had singled out Mozambique as likely to have the highest growth rate in Africa this year,'' he told a news conference.

''Let me appeal once again to the whole world to give them as much help as possible, and as soon as possible,'' he said, adding that aid was needed ''on a massive scale.''

A UN official said the death toll was already certain to be in the thousands.

''From drowning, from diseases, the death toll will surely be in the thousands,'' Ian Macleod, a spokesman for the U.N. children's fund UNICEF, told Reuters.

Mozambique has yet to issue a formal estimate of the death toll since the floods hit on Feb. 11.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit