updated 5/21/2008 10:37:13 AM ET 2008-05-21T14:37:13

Myanmar's military junta will set up orphanages for the hundreds of children whose parents died in the recent cyclone, state media reported Wednesday.

The New Light of Myanmar newspaper said orphanages will be opened in Pyapon district and Labutta, Irrawaddy River delta towns among those hit hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis.

The newspaper did not say how many orphans the government estimated survived the May 3 disaster, or how many orphanages would be built.

UNICEF's representative in Myanmar, Ramesh Shrestha, said the agency believes the number of children left without guardians is over 600 and could rise.

"We have no idea as to how many there are, but from the bits and pieces that we have, there are more than 600 or 700 unaccompanied minors so far," Shrestha said. He said they included infants and children under 2 years old.

Most of the orphans identified were being cared for by volunteers and adults at shelters, he said.

More urgent relief
UNICEF was working with Myanmar's social welfare department and the Red Cross of Myanmar to identify the unaccompanied children in the hope of eventually tracing and linking them with any surviving relatives, Shrestha said.

He said, however, that more urgent relief tasks remained at hand — including providing survivors with food, clean water, shelter and sanitation facilities.

The official death toll from the May 2-3 cyclone stands at about 78,000, with 56,000 more people missing. Conditions in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta remained precarious, with survivors facing disease, malnutrition and exposure to the elements.

Fears of child exploitation
UNICEF has estimated that children may account for more than a third of those killed in the cyclone, and has said that those who survived could be at risk of human trafficking and sexual abuse in chaotic refugee camps.

The crowded and makeshift shelters were built by survivors and have forced orphans and separated children to live alongside strangers, often in dark areas with little supervision.

There has been one report of the attempted trafficking of a teenage storm survivor in the country's largest city, Yangon, but so far no confirmed reports of sexual abuse, UNICEF said.

Similar concerns were expressed following the tsunami that battered a large portion of Asia in 2004, but little evidence of such problems emerged.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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