The rusting white truck began its grim journey shortly after 10.30am under the growing heat of a tropical sun.

Negotiating a tangle of rubble, timber and fallen powerlines, it passed bystanders who covered their noses with T-shirts or hands as they viewed its sorry cargo.

On board, guarded by rifle-toting Philippine soldiers, were 34 decomposing corpses. The white truck and small entourage of vehicles formed a funeral procession for a mass burial - the first of what promises to be many.

But after 15 minutes , a shot was fired and the military convoy came to a sudden halt. Petrified soldiers leaped to the road and sprinted for cover in the glass-strewn lobby of an empty building. Locals melted into the fields and shacks beyond.


The troops had no doubts who was responsible for the suspected attack. "New People's Army," they muttered, referring to a shadowy communist rebel group said to operate in some corners of the countryside. As they returned to their vehicles and raced back to the city centre, it became clear there would be no mass burials just then.

The incident underlined the immense challenges facing government officials and aid workers as they battle to piece Tacloban back together again.

The bodies continue to pile up on street corners, roundabouts and at local morgues. The security situation appears to be deteriorating, with nerves stretched among locals and military.

At the Tacloban City Pasalubong [souvenir] Centre, a palm-lined compound that was once a leading local tourist attraction selling postcards and handicrafts and starting point for the funeral procession, the bodies have not stopped arriving.

Yesterday inside its gates, almost 200 were laid out beneath black "Department of Health" body bags, putrefying in the scorching heat.

Senior Superintendent Emmanuel Aranas, the forensic officer co-ordinating burials, said many more victims would arrive during the coming days and weeks.

Aranas said the health risk from so many unclaimed dead was minimal and insisted that the situation was coming under control.

But a five-minute stroll through the grotesque, corpse-strewn wasteland that is Tacloban gives the lie to that claim.

Even now, scores of bodies litter the streets, left by desperate relatives or strangers outside churches, government offices or on the patio of an abandoned petrol station. "At midnight, the people bring the bodies here," sighed Renato Metran, the 56-year-old deacon of the Iglesia Ni Cristo church.

Black body bags also line each side of the city's main thoroughfare, the National Highway, with names or partial names scrawled on white labels in washed-out orange ink.

When the funeral convoy returned to the centre with its cargo intact, new bodies had appeared alongside the iron fence of the morgue - soon to be counted and added to the already terrible number.

Later in a small sign of progress a mass burial went ahead in a hillside cemetery. No prayers were said as workers dropped 30 bodies into the ground.

Five signs of progress

1. The UN's World Food Programme distributed rice and other items to nearly 50,000 people in the Tacloban area.

2. Chainsaw-wielding teams cut debris from blocked roads. A road from the airport to the city has reopened.

3. C-130 transport planes arrived on the first night-time flight since the typhoon struck, suggesting air control systems are now in place to go 24-7.

4. Nearly 10 tonnes of high-energy biscuits were delivered to Tacloban, with another 25 tonnes on the way. Food, water and medical supplies from the US, Malaysia and Singapore are waiting to be distributed.

5. The first airlift of hygiene kits and plastic sheeting from the US Agency for International Development was distributed to help 10,000 families, and another consignment is due in Manila today.