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Burma Cyclone Death Toll Surpasses 22,000; Humanitarian Efforts Hindered

International aid agencies are struggling to reach the hundreds of thousands of people in Burma who are without food and water following Saturday's devastating cyclone. The government says nearly 22,500 people are dead in the disaster and 41,000 others are missing. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia Bureau in Bangkok.

Government helicopters have dropped food and water to villages in Burma's hard-hit Irawaddy Delta area, where a storm surge that came with the cyclone wiped out entire towns. State media say it was there where the vast majority of the victims perished. Those who survived, have been waiting for help for days.

James East, a spokesman for the international aid group World Vision in Bangkok, says reaching the neediest has been nearly impossible.

"One of the big challenges is that this area was in many ways flooded by this cyclonic surge so you're finding flooded roads," East explained. "You're finding trees that have come down, bridges that have collapsed. Staff say that in order to get into these very remote areas, you have to either walk, cross these riverlets by boat, or even swim."

Some aid workers have managed to get through. The scale of the disaster is slowly becoming known from the reports they are sending back. The World Food Program's Paul Risley says the news is getting grimmer by the hour.

"The initial reports from our assessment teams in the Delta region are truly, truly staggering," East said. "It would appear that hundreds of thousands of people - if not more - lost their homes entirely due to the devastation of this cyclone."

Help has been slow to reach the victims because of the military government's apparent reluctance to accept international assistance. Just hours before a cargo plane arrived from Bangladesh, loaded with high-energy biscuits for the victims, the World Food Program had yet to receive permission to unload and distribute the food.

Scores of aid workers who are badly needed to help with the distribution efforts have been on standby in Bangk ok, waiting for the Burmese authorities to grant them visas. In the meantime, Risley says the staff working in Rangoon - also known as Yangon - are overextended.

"Since this disaster began, all of our Yangon-based staff have been working flat out," he said, "15-hour days and then going home to houses and families that don't have electricity, that don't have running water, that don't have phones. So, the work is very tough. We need to bring in additional people."

Aid agencies say the military government has assured them their representatives will receive visas. Burmese government officials have said they welcome humanitarian aid, a rare gesture for the reclusive leadership which, in the past, has viewed foreign assistance as a threat to its control. Burma has been under the military's control since 1962.

Western governments are urging the Burmese junta to allow in disaster assessment teams.

President George Bush says the United States is ready to provide more than $3 million in aid and that the U.S. Navy is prepared to go in and help find the dead and missing. American officials say at least three Navy ships are standing by off the coast of Thailand, waiting to be called.