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Flood-hit Philippines prepares for mass burials

Residents wade through floodwaters among the debris of destroyed houses in Cagayan de Oroon, after tropical storm Washi swept the southern Philippines.

The Philippines prepared for mass burials of flash-flood victims Monday to minimize the health risk from rotting cadavers after a disaster that has left many hundreds dead or missing.

Hard-pressed authorities in the port cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, on the desperately poor and conflict-torn southern island of Mindanao, are struggling to cope with the enormous devastation left by tropical storm Washi.

The death toll stands at 652 dead and 911 people are listed as missing, according to Philippine National Red Cross chief Gwendolyn Pang, after Washi triggered flash floods and landslides that swept away entire coastal villages.

Bodies that were washed out to sea have begun rising to the surface, and mortuaries are overwhelmed as emergency teams struggle to find survivors and tend to some 47,000 people huddled in evacuation centres.

Up to 50 of about 300 bodies recovered in Iligan since Washi struck in the early hours of Saturday will be communally interred, possibly during the day, so that they do not pose a health risk, city mayor Lawrence Cruz said.

"Today we will dig a mass grave and bury the unclaimed bodies as well as those in an advanced state of decomposition," he said on national television.

He said funeral homes already packed with unclaimed corpses were now turning away the newly recovered dead.

Iligan city health officer Levy Villarin told AFP the mass burial could happen during the day after the authorities complete the formal process of documenting the features of each body for possible future identification.

"That is possible, but we have to follow the proper procedure," Villarin said.

Map locating areas worst hit by floods unleashed by Tropical storm Washi.

The Philippine health department has so far certified 533 deaths from the disaster, said National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council executive director Benito Ramos.

At least 239 others are missing, the council said in its latest update.

Ramos said the Red Cross list of missing was possibly overstated.

The aid agency concedes some on the list could be among the bodies already recovered.

President Benigno Aquino is set to visit the disaster zone on Tuesday after ordering a review of the country's disaster defences.

Pope Benedict XVI prayed for the victims of the latest natural disaster to hit the largely Roman Catholic archipelago, which is also prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The United States offered assistance as Manila appealed for help to feed, clothe and house the many thousands sheltering in evacuation centers, including many slum dwellers whose makeshift homes were no match for Washi's fury.

An AFP photographer saw a 30-member military and police rescue team landing Sunday in Bayug, a delta area near Iligan that was formerly home to a fishing community estimated by officials to have had up to 1,000 residents.

The delta had been swept clean of most structures, leaving those left alive having to rebuild huts with scrap wood.

Ramos, the disaster agency chief, said most of the victims were "informal settlers" -- a term used for slum squatters who are often unregistered by authorities.

"They were not prepared for the typhoon," he said on Sunday, adding that the floods struck "at an unholy hour, 2:00 am, when everybody was asleep".

Authorities likened tropical storm Washi to Ketsana, one of the country's most devastating storms which dumped huge amounts of rain on Manila and other parts of the country in 2009, killing more than 460 people.