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Pranab Mukherjee hands cyclone aid to Bangladesh

DHAKA (Reuters) - Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee arrived in Bangladesh on Saturday for a short visit to see areas devastated by a cyclone two weeks ago, and meet government leaders.

At Dhaka airport, Mukherjee said India would export half a million tonnes of rice to Bangladesh to meet post-cyclone emergencies, waiving a ban by India on rice exports.

Indian officials in Dhaka said Mukherjee would express India’s solidarity with Bangladesh after Cyclone Sidr struck on Nov. 15, killing around 3,500 people, leaving millions homeless and thousands injured or missing.

It was the worst natural disaster to hit impoverished Bangladesh since 1991, when a cyclone killed 143,000 people.

Cyclone Sidr destroyed crops, livestock and fisheries, which officials said would be hard to restore.

The country’s army-backed interim government has asked the international community for half a million tonnes in emergency food aid by next March.

Mukherjee handed over Indian relief goods, including milk powder, blankets, water filters, food and medicine to Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, foreign affairs adviser to the Bangladesh government, at the airport on Saturday.

“India offered to join efforts for rehabilitation of ten severely affected coastal villages,” Mukherjee said.

The Indian minister will meet the head of the caretaker government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, and other key government leaders before flying back to New Delhi later on Saturday.

UNICEF, the U.N. children’s fund, said on Friday it was teaming up with other U.N. agencies including the World Food Programme to provide food aid to Bangladeshi children under the age of 3, as well as pregnant and lactating women in the country’s worst-affected areas.

UNICEF said an estimated 300,000 children under five are living in makeshift camps with their families throughout the disaster zone, surviving meager amounts of food and water.

“They do not have proper shelter or access to basic amenities, leaving them at risk of diarrhoea, acute respiratory infection and other cold-related diseases,” UNICEF said.