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Death toll in Somali floods rises to 448

November 12, 1997

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ Massive flooding in Somalia has left at least 448 people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless, aid officials said Wednesday as they searched for aircraft and money to mount a rescue operation.

A Red Cross official said a flight over the Buale region to survey the damage revealed nothing but straw roofs floating in water from the flooded Juba River.

``If the water level rises another six feet, I don’t see what can save them,″ said the official, Josue Anselmo.

More than a month of heavy rainfall has destroyed at least 15,500 houses and completely submerged 43 villages in southern Somalia, according to Wendy Driscoll, a spokeswoman for CARE International. At least 10,000 cattle have drowned.

The estimated 18,000 villagers in the area have also been hit with a severe outbreak of malaria because mosquitoes, which carry the disease, were breeding rapidly in the flood waters, Anselmo said.

The faction leaders who rule this East African nation of 7 million _ the same ones who forced out U.S.-led peacekeepers in 1995 _ are appealing for aid. But bitterness left from that disastrous mission has foreign governments and relief agencies reluctant to mount another large-scale effort.

The Red Cross managed to deliver 17 tons of relief supplies, including blankets and tarps, on Tuesday.

Maria Frauenrath, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Development Program, said negotiations were underway with France to secure military helicopters for the relief operation. One concern hampering any relief effort is the fear that rival Somali militiamen might target military helicopters.

The U.N. World Food Program planned to begin aid and evacuation flights Thursday from the Kenyan town of Garissa to Bandera, a half-submerged town where 50,000 displaced Somalis are trapped.

Bandera has the only airport in the Juba Valley that is still above water.

The near-constant rain that began Oct. 5 has submerged entire villages, roads and bridges. Those trying to survive on dry patches of land amid the swirling waters have to contend with crocodiles, poisonous snakes and hippos.

The Juba Valley is the breadbasket of Somalia, producing sorghum, a staple crop. Most of the freshly planted sorghum and the reserves just harvested have been destroyed.

Although the rain has stopped for the moment in Somalia, it continued to pelt neighboring Ethiopia, the source of the Juba River.

Somalia has had no central government since January 1991, when armed factions ousted late dictator Mohamed Siad Barre then turned against each other.

The anarchy in the country made a fiasco of the three-year U.S-led mission that began in 1992 to try to help victims of famine. U.S. forces withdrew in 1994 having lost 42 soldiers. More than 100 peacekeepers died and more than $1.66 billion was spent before the United Nations finally pulled out the last of its troops in 1995.

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