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Death Toll Surpasses 22,000 in Myanmar; Groups Poised to Rush in Aid

BY Admin  May 6, 2008 at 9:55 AM EST

Cyclone damage in Yangon, Myanmar

Of the deaths, 671 were from the former capital Yangon, while the rest were from the low-lying Irrawaddy River delta region, regarded as the rice bowl of Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Images from the region showed roofless houses, wide swaths of pooled water, massive trees uprooted and electrical lines spread over the flatted villages, reported the Associated Press.

Cyclone Nargis, which hit Saturday, was one of the most devastating storms to reach Asia since 1991 when 143,000 people died in Bangladesh, according to Reuters.

“More deaths were caused by the tidal wave than the storm itself,” Minister for Relief and Resettlement Maung Maung Swe told a news conference in Yangon, where food and water were running low. “The wave was up to 12 feet high and it swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages. They did not have anywhere to flee.”

Government authorities also decided to delay a vote in the worst affected areas on a constitution that was meant to reinforce the military regime’s grip on power, the New York Times reported.

Myanmar’s military government has indicated it would welcome aid for victims of the cyclone, the United Nations said Tuesday. But U.N. workers were still awaiting visas to enter the country, said Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, according to the AP.

Myanmar’s ruling generals have long been suspicious of international organizations and have sought to control their activities in the country. As a consequence, several aid groups, such as Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross, have limited their presence in the country.

“We hope to fly in more assistance within the next 48 hours,” a World Food Program spokesman, Paul Risley, told the Times. “The challenge will be getting to the affected areas with road blockages everywhere.”

President Bush on Tuesday called on the junta to allow the United States to help with disaster assistance, saying the U.S. already has provided some assistance but wants to do more.

“We’re prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation. But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country,” he said, reported the AP.

Mr. Bush spoke at a signing ceremony of legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Burmese democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962 and has come under criticism for suppressing pro-democracy parties such as the one led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the past 18 years, according to the AP.