Malawians search for relatives buried under the mud as death toll jumps
BLANTYRE (Reuters) -In Malawi, where floods swept away entire villages this month after a storm tore through its southern districts, police officers and soldiers on Friday dug for victims buried under the mud and rocks as the death toll rose sharply.
The storm has pounded the southern African country as tropical Cyclone Freddy swept through the region killing more than 500 people in Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar since it first made landfall in Africa in late February and circled back for a second time over the weekend.
While the storm had dissipated, rain continued to hamper rescue efforts as vehicles struggled on flooded roads.
In Malawi, which has suffered the brunt of the storm with 438 killed, soldiers used shovels and picks to exhume bodies in the commercial capital Blantyre and laid them on the ground for identification.
Lieutenant Colonel Dickens Kamisa, who participated in the search, said local authorities identified about eight areas where dead bodies should be buried and were using sniffer dogs to find trapped Malawians.
Chifundo Chilimba, a local resident, told Reuters he could not find his family members as the depth of the mud was too deep.
"My relatives could be deep down under the debris," Chilimba said in his local language of Chichewa, adding that the only thing he was able to find were his family's clothes.
"We are going to bury these clothes I am carrying in the case that they are not found," he added.
To help in search and rescue efforts, foreign aircraft and boats were arriving in Malawi on Friday, officials said.
The country's police inspector, Casper Chalera, told Reuters by telephone that the first rescue vessels will arrive from Zambia and Switzerland, adding that the U.S. and South Africa were also planning to send aid aircraft and boats.
"Two Zambian planes, one carrying relief items and a helicopter for aerial operations have landed," Chalera said.
Lameck Kalenga, Defence Force Deputy Chief of military operations, told media on Thursday that the United Kingdom and Mozambique had also pledged to send military equipment.
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said it was providing food assistance by distributing partially pre-cooked food called corn-soya blend to displaced people.
"(Severe flooding) has inundated farmlands and destroyed produce – just as farmers were about to harvest the only crop of the year - compounding an already difficult year in which 3.8 million people need food assistance," the WFP said in a statement.
It added that the country has been affected by high maize prices and the worst cholera epidemic in decades.
At least 76 people have died in Mozambique, according to government figures. The storm had already killed about 27 people in Madagascar and Mozambique before it lashed Mozambique a second time.
(Reporting by Frank Phiri and Eldson Chagara in Blantyre and Manuel Mucari in Maputo; Writing by Anait Miridzhanian; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Josie Kao)