Philippines starts to bury dead as typhoon toll hits 418

NEW BATAAN, Philippines, Dec 7 (Reuters) - Residents in the

southern Philippines began to bury their dead on Friday even as

rescue workers continued scouring remote areas for possible

survivors of Typhoon Bopha, the country's strongest storm this

year, which killed 418 people and left nearly as many missing.

Officials in Compostela Valley, one of the worst hit

provinces on the resource-rich island of Mindanao, were

considering mass graves for unclaimed bodies killed by the

typhoon which hit two days ago.

Bopha cut a swathe of destruction in the valley, flooding

farming and mining towns and burying many people in mudslides.

"We are thinking of burying the unclaimed bodies on health

concerns," Major General Ariel Bernardo, an army division

commander in the southern Philippines, told Reuters. "The foul

smell is becoming strong."

Bernardo said rescue and retrieval work was hampered by lack

of equipment. "Some of the dead are buried in knee deep mud and

we only have our hands and shovels," he said.

Arturo Uy, governor of Compostela Valley, said the province

was considering digging mass graves if most of the dead are not

claimed in two to three days. He estimates 212 died in his

province while nearly 400 were missing.

"Probably half of the missing could be dead by now," he told

Reuters.

The official death toll stands at 418, with 383 missing and

hundreds injured, the national disaster agency said in its

latest tally. But the toll is expected to rise, with local

government officials quoting higher numbers of missing.

A Reuters photographer saw at least 10 bodies under mud and

piles of logs and debris and only a few hundreds of metres from

a crowded makeshift grandstand in New Bataan town in Compostela

Valley, where President Benigno Aquino was due to give out

relief goods later on Friday.

"Up to now, we are not discussing stopping (the search),"

Uy told reporters. "There are still survivors in barangays

(villages) which we couldn't reach immediately."

Stephen Antig, executive director of Pilipino Banana Growers

and Exporters Association, estimates about 7 billion pesos ($171

million) worth of bananas mostly for export in Compostela Valley

and Davao del Norte were destroyed by the typhoon.

The area, where plantations owned by Dole Food Company Inc

and Del Monte Pacific Ltd are located,

accounts for almost a fifth of the country's total banana

production.

Bopha has now weakened and is slowly moving north-northwest

towards the South China Sea, with central winds of up to 110 kph

(68 mph) and gusts of up to 140 kph (87 mph).

About 20 typhoons hit the Philippines every year, often

causing death and destruction. Almost exactly a year ago,

Typhoon Washi killed 1,500 people in Mindanao, but most storms

make landfall further north.

($1 = 40.965 Philippine pesos)

(Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco, Manny Mogato and

Erik dela Cruz; Editing by Michael Perry)

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