World Steps Up Relief in Mozambique Flood Disaster

By Buchizya Mseteka

MAPUTO, Mozambique (Reuters) - Donor nations stepped up relief work in flood-ravaged Mozambique Friday and exhausted South African pilots raced to save tens of thousands of people marooned in trees and roofs as another cyclone brewed offshore.

Poul Nielson, European Union Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, met aid agencies to coordinate relief supplies to devastated communities and the rescue of some 100,000 people.

Nielson, accompanied by Portuguese Secretary of State Louis Amado, will later meet Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, who has criticized the West for responding too slowly to the crisis that has left up to a million people homeless.

South African military helicopters took off at sunrise to rescue some 100,000 people trapped for the seventh night by the worst flooding in memory in central and southern Mozambique.

Mozambican state radio warned that Cyclone Gloria, which was earlier reported to have weakened, was strengthening and heading southwest across the Mozambican channel.

Aid officials have warned that if Gloria hit Mozambique it would complicate the relief work and bring fresh disaster.

The South Africans have rescued more than 10,000 people since Sunday.

Meanwhile, Mozambican, South African, Zimbabwean and Botswanan officials will meet in Pretoria to discuss ways to help flood victims in their countries, since Cyclone Eline swept across the region, killing at least 350 people since last month.

Aid agencies have warned the death toll could be higher.

Helicopters On The Way

Airport officials in Maputo expected the arrival of French, German and Spanish helicopters and crews Friday and a British contingent Saturday.

Rich Western nations, alongside some of Africa's poorest countries, are also sending aid.

Lesotho and Zambia, among the poorest African countries, have committed their only cargo planes to deliver food and medicine to Mozambique.

Europe and the United States are finally stirring into action.

''We have mobilized the U.N. system and have also begun very seriously raising money. We have got some response, but the response could have been better,'' U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in New York Thursday.

In Maputo, an African ambassador said of aid from poverty-stricken Zambia and the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho: ''This is the first time in the history of the continent that we are seeing Africa-to-Africa solidarity and aid support.''

Chissano Says Aid Needed

''I'm happy that what was given to us was given with all heart from people who are trying to help. But it is true that this help came slowly in small quantities,'' Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano said in a television interview.

''I am happy that this help came, but I would say it has not been enough.''

Western nations, stung by criticism of too little and too late, have started to respond.

Aid agencies and Western diplomats said reconnaissance military contingents from Britain, France and the United States would arrive Friday ahead of bigger groups over the weekend.

Transport planes from the United States and Britain are expected with helicopters, boats and specialized equipment.

Up to 900 U.S. rescue and medical personnel, helicopters and boats will move into southern Africa this weekend to help Mozambique and four other flood-ravaged countries in the region.

Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said the force, including big MH-63 helicopters and C-130 transport planes, would concentrate on Mozambique, but would also include flood-hit South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

France is sending a transport plane and two Puma helicopters.

Germany's Defense Ministry is sending four helicopters, and Spain said it would send five.

''The catastrophe was much bigger than anyone anticipated. We are doing everything possible to help,'' said EU Commissioner Nielson, who arrived in Mozambique Thursday.

Government officials are worried about fresh floodwater from rivers flowing from neighboring South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi.

Officials estimate it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild Mozambique and urged Western donors to write off Maputo's $8.3 billion external debt, on which it pays up to $1.4 million in interest a week. Britain has said it will cancel the money it is owed by Mozambique.

Until the floods, Mozambique was one of Africa's favored nations, introducing investor-friendly reforms that led to double-digit growth in the last few years after a ruinous 16-year civil war that ended in 1992.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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