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Thousands Still Stranded by Floods

March 2, 2000

MAPUTO, Mozambique (AP) _ With a rescue helicopter hovering overhead and floodwaters below, Sophia Pedro gave birth to a baby girl in a treetop she had sought refuge in four days earlier, one of as many as 1 million people made homeless in this southeast African nation.

An hour later, Pedro and her daughter were rescued after a medic lowered from a helicopter cut the newborn’s umbilical cord and pulled the two to safety.

Wednesday’s dramatic rescue came as thousands more Mozambicans remained stranded in trees, on rooftops or on shrinking islands of land. Thousands more are feared dead in flooding that has devastated one of the world’s poorest countries.

Lt. Col. Jaco Klopper, commander of South African rescue operations, said it would take up to four days to complete rescue operations in the southern Gaza province. Thousands of other people were trapped farther north along the swollen Save River valley.

Pedro, 26, and her newborn daughter, Rositha, were among 915 people plucked from the floodwaters in central Mozambique on Wednesday by South African military helicopters. Rositha was born as a rescue helicopter began hoisting the eight occupants of the tree to safety.

Helicopter pilot Chris Berlyn said crew member Stewart Back had been lowered into the tree and discovered that Pedro was about to give birth. He said the child was born two minutes later.

Berlyn raced back to a base camp to pick up Godfrey Nongovela, a medic. Nongovela and other members of the crew managed to get the woman and child safely aboard the helicopter.

``We took them to Chibuto, where the police took them to a clinic,″ Berlyn said.

An exhausted Pedro said from her hospital bed that she was happy to have been rescued along with three other members of her family. But she said her grandmother had died in the floods.

Nurses said the baby appeared to be doing fine.

Another survivor, Lucas Mthembu, woke up Sunday to water pouring into his room, but he was able to escape to higher ground by car. ``I saw people running in the water, crying,″ he said. ``Some people were swept away. They were screaming.″

Mthembu _ who lived in the town of Chokwe, 125 miles north of the capital, Maputo _ feared his sister was among those killed. He has been waiting with hundreds of other flood refugees as helicopters drop off people rescued from the fast moving waters, hoping to find out information about his sister.

More than 6,000 people have been rescued in recent days. Hundreds of thousands are homeless but safe on remote patches of high ground, and tens of thousands are seeking help in refugee camps that aid agencies are throwing together near the flood zone.

Most have been without food and clean water for days. Klopper, the South African military commander, said 39 tons of food aid were dropped to stranded flood victims Wednesday.

Aid workers estimate 800,000 people or more are at risk from possible outbreaks of malaria or cholera.

About 100 cases of malaria and diarrhea are reported each day in the centers where flood refugees stay, said Alfredo Chioze of the Mozambican Red Cross.

The floods have devastated the most fertile and densely populated regions of the country. People who had little to start with have lost almost everything.

Donor countries have promised that more helicopters are on the way with additional aid. But aid workers say that with all access roads to many flooded regions are washed away, the extra helicopters will not be enough to reach all those in need.

``The people of southern Africa are in desperate straits and cannot hang on much longer,″ said Carol Bellamy, the head of UNICEF.

On Wednesday, the United States announced it was sending 900 troops and six C-130 transport planes to ferry aid and supplies to Mozambique, as well as six MH-53 helicopters to help rescue stranded people.

A day earlier, Britain said it was sending seven helicopters and two transport planes.

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