MAPUTO, Mozambique (Reuters) - A U.N. aid organizer said a relief mission would be sent Thursday after a U.S. plane reported spotting 20,000 Mozambicans stranded by flooding which has devastated the southern African country.
The Mozambicans were filmed by a C-130 aircraft initially detailed to check flood damage to Mozambique's railway in the northeast, Guillaume Demontraver, an official of the U.N. Humanitarian Office, said.
Demontraver said a French missionary broke the news, prompting U.S. forces to investigate using the aircraft equipped with infra-red cameras.
''We are organizing a rescue and relief mission that will move at dawn to go and assess the needs of these people,'' Demontraver told Reuters.
Aid agencies said the discovery was news to them. Most said they would try to verify the report, which if true could point to a much larger humanitarian crisis than suspected.
''Our team are looking at going for an assessment, we are looking at how we can organize food supplies to these people as soon as they can be found, said Brenda Barton, spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program (WFP).
U.N. official Rosa Malanga said the organization would assess the situation early Thursday in coordination with the Americans and implement a rescue if necessary.
''Once we have found these people, this humanitarian mission will be followed by a relief team,'' she said.
Doubt Over Report
Another aid worker who declined to be named, cast doubt on the report, saying the figure was too high for the people to have gone unnoticed by South African Air Force rescue missions operating for the past three weeks since floods hit the country.
The South Africans spearheaded a rescue and relief mission for three weeks, plucking 13,000 people to safety, long before the multinational force now assembled in Mozambique arrived.
The South Africans declared the search mission over but said they would resume if more people were found to be in need.
''It is possible but it seems highly unlikely that such a large number of people would have gone unnoticed for all this time. The South Africans and other multinational forces have searched across Mozambique and found nothing,'' the worker said.
If confirmed, the latest sighting would push the estimated number of people displaced to 270,000. The government earlier announced that 250,000 people were homeless.
Ross Mountain, special envoy of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, told a news conference there were 74 settlement camps across the flooded areas of Mozambique.
He said the world body was also using the death toll of 212 announced by President Joaquim Chissano, who had played down estimates of thousands killed. Chiassano said rescuers had so far recovered only 212 bodies.
A spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund UNICEF said Tuesday the floods and their aftermath of disease and hunger could push the death toll into the thousands.
Chissano said the next big killer could be mines left over from a 16-year civil war that have been dislodged by the floods.
The U.N. Humanitarian Office in Maputo said a total of $150 million had been pledged by Western donors toward reconstruction of the country, one of the world's poorest.
Chissano said his government was still assessing the cost of reconstruction but aides said it will well be over $250 million.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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