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Anger cancels mass burial in Philippines

13 November 2013, 19:11

Tacloban - Gunfire forced the cancellation of a mass burial in the typhoon-ravaged Philippines on Wednesday as authorities struggled to dispose of the dead, while anger among survivors at the slow trickle of aid turned deadly.

Thousands of people jostled and begged for seats on scarce flights out of the ruined city of Tacloban, where putrefying corpses compounded a growing health menace after one of the strongest storms on record killed thousands.

Attempts to bury some of the victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan suffered a setback when gunshots halted a convoy travelling towards a communal grave.

"We had finished digging the mass burial site. We had the truck loaded with bodies... but... there was some shooting," Tacloban mayor Alfred Romualdez told AFP. "They could not proceed."

Adding to the grim body count, news emerged that eight people were crushed to death on Tuesday when a huge crowd of survivors from the typhoon rushed a government rice store.

"One wall of our warehouses collapsed and eight people were crushed and killed instantly," the National Food Authority's Rex Estoperez said of the incident in Alangalang town, 17km from Tacloban.

Five days after Haiyan ripped apart entire coastal communities, the situation in Leyte's provincial capital Tacloban was becoming ever more dire with essential supplies low and increasingly desperate survivors clamouring to leave.

"Everyone is panicking," Captain Emily Chang, a navy doctor, told AFP.

"They say there is no food, no water. They want to get of here," she added, saying doctors at the airport had run out of medicine, including antibiotics.

"We are examining everyone but there's little we can do until more medical supplies arrive."

Fears of disease

The World Health Organisation said there were significant injuries that needed to be dealt with, even as medics worked to prevent outbreaks of diseases caused by cramped living conditions and dirty drinking water.

It cautioned regular health needs also had to be met, including the 12 000 babies expected to be born this month to the more than 11.3 million people affected.

The United Nations estimates 10 000 people may have died in Tacloban alone, where five-metre waves flattened nearly everything in their path as they swept hundreds of metres across the low-lying land.

However, Philippine President Benigno Aquino said late on Tuesday he believed that number was "too much", adding that 2 500 "is the figure we're working on", despite the rapidly climbing toll and the bodies still littering the streets of Tacloban.

On Wednesday, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos refused to be drawn on the differing estimates.

"We are focusing on the living not the dead," she said in a statement emailed to AFP.

"We are not busy counting bodies but are focusing on supporting those who survived and act accordingly."

Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras admitted authorities had been overwhelmed by the sheer number of corpses.

"The reason the body recovery stopped is because we ran out of body bags," he said. "But we now have 4 000 bags. I am not saying the casualties are 4 000. We are making sure there is an oversupply."

At Tacloban airport, AFP journalists witnessed exhausted and famished survivors pushing and shoving each other to get on one of the few flights out of the city.

Philippines Airlines said it was laying on six planes a day, each with 75 seats.

"We have been here for three days and we still cannot get to fly out," said a frail Angeline Conchas, who was waiting for space on a plane with her seven-year-old daughter Rogiel Ann after fleeing their building as flood waters rose around it.

"We made it out, but now we may die from hunger."

Overwhelmed and under-resourced rescue workers have been unable to provide food, water, medicines, shelter and other relief supplies to some of the 673 000 made homeless, and desperation has been growing across the disaster zones.

Tension at night

The international community continues to pledge help. The United States and Britain are sending warships carrying thousands of sailors to the Philippines, and US amphibious craft were also being deployed.

All were expected to arrive over the next few days. But for a shattered population already in dire straits, any delay is too long.

"People are desperate because they have nothing in Tacloban," Marco Boasso of the International Organisation for Migration said.

Hundreds of soldiers and police were patrolling the streets and manning checkpoints in Tacloban to try to prevent pillaging and the government said roads were now passable throughout the area, raising hope that relief might finally reach those in need.

But a curfew was coming into force again on Wednesday evening as troops fanned out to preserve order in the dark.

President Aquino has declared a "state of national calamity", allowing the government to impose price controls and quickly release emergency funds.

Aquino's figure of up to 2 500 deaths looked set to be easily surpassed. By early afternoon on Wednesday the government said 2 275 people were known to have died and 80 were still missing.

International aid groups said they feared that the final count would be much worse.

"Obviously the situation in Tacloban is appalling but we are also very concerned about outlying islands," Patrick Fuller, Red Cross spokesman in the Asia-Pacific, told AFP.

"There are a lot of them and I think it will be days, if not weeks, before we have a clear picture."



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