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Rescue Workers Struggle to Reach Cyclone Survivors

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

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 by Thursday s storm, 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 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 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 otherwise.

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.

Germany offered $731,000, the European Union $2.2 million, and the British government $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.

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

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