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Burma's cyclone death toll soars

Many homes in the Irrawaddy river delta were destroyed by the cyclone

The death toll from Burma's devastating cyclone has now risen to more than 22,000, state media have said.

Another 41,000 are missing three days after Cyclone Nargis hit the country, causing a huge tidal surge to sweep inland, according to state radio.

The report came as aid agencies begin what they expect to be a major relief operation to help hundreds of thousands left without clean water and shelter.

Burma's government has been criticised over its handling of the crisis.

A number of Burmese nationals and some foreigners have said they had not been properly warned by the country's military leaders about the approaching storm.

Some witnesses have also said the government's response to the disaster has so far been slow and inadequate.

US President George W Bush has urged the military leadership to give access to American disaster assessment teams, saying his country was ready to use its navy "to help find the missing, to help stabilise the situation".

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Footage of the aid effort into Burma from state-run TV

Mr Bush was speaking as he signed legislation awarding the top US civilian honour, the Congressional Gold Medal, to the detained Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The US later said it had offered $3m of aid, up from an initial contribution of $250,000. The UK said it had promised 5m ($9.9m), the EU offered 2m euros ($3.1m), while China said it had given $1m.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said his country had limited its financial contribution to 200,000 euros ($310,000):

"It's not a lot, but we don't really trust the way the Burmese ministry would use the money," he said.

Horrific scenes

State media reported on Tuesday that 22,464 people had now been confirmed dead and another 41,054 people missing as a result of the cyclone. As rescue teams get to areas presently cut off, those figures are expected to rise.

EXTENT OF THE DEVASTATION
Detail from UN cyclone map

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Almost all of the deaths occurred in the Irrawaddy river delta region, where more people were killed by the tidal wave than the cyclone itself, Minister for Relief and Resettlement Maung Maung Swe told reporters in Rangoon.

"The wave was up to 12ft [3.5m] high and it swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages," he said. "They did not have anywhere to flee."

Some 95% of the homes in the city of Bogalay in the Irrawaddy delta were destroyed and most of its 190,000 residents are now homeless, he added.

The neighbouring cities of Labutta and Pyapon have also been badly affected. A doctor in Labutta told the BBC that half of the city had vanished and dozens of surrounding villages washed away.

Satellite images released by the US space agency, Nasa, showed virtually the entire coastal plain of the country under water, destroyed roads, downed power lines and flattened houses.

One of the few aid agencies permitted to work inside Burma, World Vision, described scenes of horror in the affected areas, with fields strewn with bodies and desperate survivors without food or shelter.

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International assistance must take place
Kevin, New York

"They saw the dead bodies from the helicopters, so it's quite overwhelming," said Kyi Minn, an adviser to World Vision's office.

Foreign journalists are being denied entry to Burma, but a BBC reporter who has made it to Rangoon, its largest city and former capital, says he saw evidence of massive destruction, with houses torn down and trees ripped from their roots.

Parts of the city have had power and water restored, but most people are still running short, he adds.

Aid appeal

International aid agencies and the United Nations have begun a major relief operation to help the hundreds of thousands of survivors left homeless by the cyclone.

The UN World Food Programme said its food aid had begun to reach people in and around Rangoon. Additional truckloads of food are due to be dispatched on Wednesday to Labutta, which it said was the area hardest hit.

It said many of the coastal areas in the Irrawaddy delta remained cut off due to extensive flooding and road damage.

Thailand's air force loads up aid to send to Burma
Many countries have promised humanitarian assistance to Burma

The WFP said it had more than 800 tonnes of food available in its warehouses in Rangoon and would airlift more supplies into Burma as soon as possible.

WFP country director Chris Kaye said the government had provided "some valuable co-operation", but said "much more" would be needed.

Thailand has already flown in some aid, India is sending two naval ships, and Bangladesh has said it will fly food and water purification tablets to Rangoon on Wednesday. Many other countries have promised further assistance.

Rashid Khalikov from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warned that some UN aid work was being delayed by visa restrictions.

He said the UN was urging Burma to waive the requirement for UN staff to have entry visas as the governments of Iran and Pakistan did after similar natural disasters.

Referendum delay

Correspondents say Burma, isolated and impoverished, has long been wary of the international community and there are doubts over how much access the government will allow aid workers.

DEADLIEST RECENT STORMS
Hurricane Katrina, US, 2005 - at least 1,836 dead
Orissa Cyclone, 1999, Northern India - at least 10,000 dead
Hurricane Mitch, 1998, Central America - at least 11,000 dead
Typhoon Thelma, 1991, Philippines - 6,000 dead
Bangladesh cyclone, 1991 - about 138,000 dead
Bhola cyclone, 1970 - at least 300,000 dead

Burma's leaders have said they will accept external help, in a move that correspondents say could reflect the scale of the disaster.

"The task is very wide and extensive and the government needs the co-operation of the people and well-wishers from at home and abroad," Information Minister Kyaw Hsan was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying on Tuesday.

"We will not hide anything. Please ask the people not to be duped by rumours or fabrication," he said, adding that $4.5m of disaster aid had been set aside.

Burmese state television reported on Tuesday the government had decided to postpone to 24 May the referendum on a new constitution in areas worst-hit by the cyclone - including Rangoon and Irrawaddy.

But it said that the vote initially planned for 10 May would proceed as planned in the rest of the country. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) criticised the decision to press ahead.

Map showing path of cyclone and worst hit areas




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