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Bangladesh storm toll nears 3,000

Four days after super cyclone Sidr killed nearly 2,600 people in Bangladesh, rescuers struggled on Monday to reach isolated areas along the country`s devastated coast and give aid to millions of survivors.

"The tragedy unfolds as we walk through one after another devastated village," said relief worker Mohammad Selim in Bagerhat, one of the worst-hit areas. "Often it looks like we are in a valley of death."

Media reports and the chairman of the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, Mohammad Abdur Rob, said the death toll from Sidr had already passed 3,000, and was likely to rise. The government put the official toll at 2,580 confirmed dead.

"We are trying to reach all the affected areas on the vast coastline as soon as possible, then we will know how many people exactly have died," one government official said.

While it will take several days to determine the number of dead and missing, some 3 million survivors who were either evacuated from the low-lying southern coast or whose homes and villages were destroyed will need support, the government said.

Aid workers fear inadequate supplies of food, drinking water and medicine could lead to outbreaks of disease.

Grieving families begged for clothes to wrap around the bodies of dead relatives for burial. In some areas, they put corpses in mass graves.

Reuters reporters said bodies were being discovered by the hour in the rivers and paddy fields and under piles of debris.


Military ships and helicopters were trying to reach thousands of people believed stranded on islands in the Bay of Bengal and in coastal areas still cut off after last week`s devastating storm.

World Vision, one of many non-governmental groups working to help the cyclone survivors, said on Monday some 1,000 fishermen were still unaccounted for.

"Many of us climbed up on trees in the Sundarban forest, but I fell down in panic when I saw a tiger below," said a fisherman on Dublarchar island. "The waves then swept me further into the mangrove and I found myself alive when the cyclone was over."

The Sundarban forest, home to the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger and a World Heritage site, was badly hit. A forest official said Sidr had damaged trees over about 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres), but could not say how many animals had been killed.

S.M. Nurul Alam, coordinator of Coast Trust, a non-government organization in Cox`s Bazar, said some 5,000 fishermen from Cox`s Bazar and nearby islands had gone to Dublarchar in recent weeks.

"But they have not come back yet. Their families are waiting, amid fears they might have been swept away or have died," he told Reuters in Cox`s Bazar.

Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, foreign affairs adviser to the country`s army-backed interim government, said on Monday the authorities had taken all measures to prepare for Cyclone Sidr.

"Despite these steps, appalling damage has occurred, the assessment of which is still on-going," he said in a statement. "We will welcome support from the international community."

The Dhaka Foreign Ministry said the King of Saudi Arabia has announced a $100 million grant for the victims. Riyadh would also airlift 300 tonnes of food and relief materials.

India said it would send a comprehensive relief package.

"This package will consist of medicine, food items, milk powder, tents and blankets, first-aid kits and other relief items," Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee told parliament.


Cyclone Sidr smashed into the coast of southern Bangladesh late on Thursday with 250 kph (155 mph) winds that whipped up a five-meter (16-foot) tidal surge.

In its wake, bodies of people and animals floated down rivers and the stench of death filled the air. Relatives tried to identify and bring them ashore, before burying them hurriedly without proper ceremonies.

Officials in affected areas say the death toll given by the ministry is far below the real numbers. Aid agencies have said the toll could rise beyond 10,000.

"Some 2,000 people have died in my area alone," said Anwar Panchayet in Bagerhat district. The storm was the worst to hit disaster-prone Bangladesh since 1991 when nearly 143,000 people died in a cyclone and the tidal surge it triggered.

A much improved disaster preparedness plan, including storm shelters built all along the coastline, has been credited with saving hundreds of lives.

"The extent of destruction is unimaginable," Reuters cameraman Rafiqur Rahman reported from a coastal village.

"In the 7 km (4.5 miles) I trekked this morning, I saw not a single house standing," he said. "Only a few leafless trees and a couple of dogs reminded me it was once a village"

UNICEF said Cyclone Sidr had affected 3.2 million people and put 1 million in shelters.

"Many children are finding themselves in difficult circumstances without food, shelter and safety -- they have suffered loss or separation from their parents," Louis-Georges Arsenault, UNICEF Representative in Bangladesh, said in a statement.

Two U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships with helicopters, the USS Essex and the USS Kearsarge, were sailing to Bangladesh to help in relief and rescue operations.

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