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Bangladesh Cyclone Deaths Climb to 2,300

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PARVEEN AHMED | November 18, 2007 11:45 PM EST | AP

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BARGUNA, Bangladesh — The death toll from Bangladesh's most devastating storm in a decade climbed to at least 2,300 on Sunday and relief officials warned the figure could jump sharply as rescuers reach more isolated areas.

Teams from international aid organizations worked with army troops in a massive rescue effort that drew help from around the world. Rescue workers cleared roads of fallen trees and twisted roofs to reach remote villages, but tents, rice, water and other relief items were slow to arrive. Hungry survivors, thousands of whom were left homeless, scrambled for food.

The death toll rose as officials made contact with coastal regions cut off by the storm, said Selina Shahid of the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management.

District officials compile the figures, which are far from precise, based on reports from police, public hospitals, military officials, relief workers and aid agencies, said Mohammad Golam Mostafa of the Disaster Management Ministry.

The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross, said that it believed the toll could hit 10,000 once rescuers reach islands off the coast of the low-lying river delta nation.

Mohammad Abdur Rob, chairman of the society, said the estimate came from the assessments of thousands of volunteers taking part in the rescue operations across the battered region.

"We have seen more bodies floating in the sea," Zakir Hossain, a fisherman from the country's southwest said, after reaching shore with two decomposing bodies he and other fishermen had found.

Squatting in a muddy field with his wife, 45-year-old farmer Asad Ali said their their 5-year-old daughter, the couple's only child, had been fatally crushed beneath their toppled thatched hut in Barguna, one of the hardest-hit districts.

He said a helicopter had dropped packages of food but he had received little assistance. Mobs swarm below the helicopters every time one is spotted.

"I've been here waiting for hours for something to eat," he said. "What I've got so far are a few cookies. Not enough."

Government officials defended the relief efforts and expressed confidence that authorities are up to the task.

"We have enough food and water," said Shahidul Islam, the top official in Bagerhat, a battered district close to Barguna. "We are going to overcome the problem."

Disaster Management Secretary Aiyub Bhuiyan met Sunday with representatives from the United Nations and international aid groups to discuss the emergency response.

"We have briefed them about what we need immediately," Bhuiyan told reporters.

The government said it has allocated $5.2 million in emergency aid for rebuilding houses. Many foreign governments and international groups have pledged to help, including the United States, which offered $2.1 million and the United Nations, which promised $7 million.

A U.S. military medical team is already in Bangladesh and two Navy ships _ the USS Essex and USS Kearsarge _ each carrying at least 20 helicopters and tons of supplies, will be made available if the Bangladesh goverment requests them, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

The German government offered $731,000, the European Union with $2.2 million and the British government with $5 million. France pledged $730,000 in aid, while the Philippines announced it would send a medical team.

The Rome-based World Food Program was rushing in food, and the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society was sending thousands of workers to stricken areas.

Pope Benedict XVI called for "every possible effort to help our brothers who have been so sorely tested" during his traditional Sunday blessing from the Vatican.

Many evacuees crowded onto ferries and trudged down sludge-filled roads to return home for the first time since the storm hit Thursday.

"I have had no news of my family since Wednesday, as the mobile phones are down," said Golam Rasul, who was traveling to see his mother and brother in Bagerhat district.

Many survivors returned to find their bamboo-and-straw huts flattened, their roofs missing, their crops ruined.

"We tied the corners of our tin roof to coconut trees with ropes, so it wouldn't fly away but our kitchen was destroyed and many trees around fell," said Shafiqul Islam, who works at a roadside gas station near Madaridpur, another hard-hit coastal district.

Thanks to an effective early warning system, at least 1.5 million coastal villagers fled to shelters before the storm. But Islam and his family chose to stay at home.

"We didn't think it would be so bad, but when the wind roared over us, it was very scary. We huddled together under the bed," he said.

Sidr's 150-mph winds smashed tens of thousands of homes in southwestern Bangladesh and ruined thousands of acres of crops.

Every year, storms batter Bangladesh, a country of 150 million, often killing large numbers of people. The most deadly recent storm was a tornado that leveled 80 villages in northern Bangladesh in 1996, killing 621 people.

Only two people were killed in Bangladesh by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was spawned off Indonesia's Sumatra island by a magnitude-9 earthquake, hitting a dozen countries and killing at least 216,858, according to government and aid agency figures considered the most reliable in each country.

Hurricane Katrina, the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history, killed 1,600 people across the Gulf Coast, destroyed or severely damaged more than 200,000 homes and made more than 800,000 people homeless overnight.

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Associated Press writers Julhas Alam and Farid Hossain in Dhaka and Pavel Rahman in Barguna contributed to this report.