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Debt suspension not enough, Mozambique says

MAPUTO, Mozambique -- Facing a huge reconstruction bill after devastating floods, Mozambique's government expressed disappointment Thursday that some creditor nations agreed to suspend -- but not cancel -- its foreign debts.

The Paris Club of Western creditors had announced Wednesday that because of the extensive flooding, Mozambique would not have to make debt payments of tens of millions of dollars this year."We are satisfied that a positive step was taken for Mozambique's debt -- but it falls short of our expectation," Foreign Minister Leonardo Simao said. "Our expectation was for the full cancellation of the debt."

Simao said he did not how much money the debt suspension would save Mozambique, but officials said previously that the nation was facing debt payments of tens of millions of dollars annually.

The foreign minister had said earlier that Mozambique's entire foreign debt stands at about $1.3 billion. The government will continue to ask that its debts be written off, Simao said.

The floods last month killed at least 492 people, left 330,000 homeless and caused an estimated $250 million in damage to roads, bridges, railways and buildings.

After a ruinous civil war that ended in 1992, Mozambique's economy had been recovering when the floods struck. The growth rate, roughly 10 percent a year, is expected to fall this year because of the disaster. The country remains one of the poorest in the world.

Rain in central Mozambique has slowed some aid deliveries this week, but food supplies are reaching the estimated 1 million people in need of help.

The Buzi River, near the central city of Beira, has flooded some areas in recent days, forcing a limited number of residents to flee, the government said. No figures were available, and there were no casualties.

International aid groups have said they would like to end their dependence on helicopters by the end of March and distribute additional aid in trucks, which are much less expensive and can carry larger loads.

But the continued rain has washed away some roads, forcing the aid agencies to rely on the helicopters. More than 50 aircraft in Mozambique are assisting with the aid effort, most of them helicopters, aid officials said.

Thousands of refugees have been going back to their devastated towns and villages to begin rebuilding their lives despite the government's urging that they remain in aid camps for now.

In Chokwe, one of the hard-hit cities along the Limpopo River, about 20,000 of 50,000 residents have returned. Traders are selling food along the town's main road, but shops, schools and government offices remain closed.

The refugees' return complicates efforts to deliver food and other supplies. With flood victims split between the refugee camps and the villages, aid groups need to send assistance to both places.

In Washington, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Wednesday that the Treasury Department is moving to forgive the $4.9 million debt Mozambique owes the U.S. government, and assistance is going to Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, which also were hit by flooding.

Albright said the U.S. Agency for International Development has provided $7 million in emergency food aid and $5.7 million in disaster assistance, and officials are assessing other needs. U.S. civilian and military disaster teams have been sent, she noted.

On the Net: Relief organizations: www.interaction.org

World Food Program: www.wfp.org/index.htm