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Deluged Bangladesh awaits flow of aid. As flood waters slowly recede, extent of damage becomes clearer

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Submerged Bangladesh restored its vital air lifeline Thursday as international donors were poised to channel millions of dollars of aid to the flood-ravaged nation. The government announced that the flooded international airport in the capital, Dacca, could handle arrivals of large aircraft.

And officials predicted that medicine and other relief supplies would soon begin flowing into this largely Muslim country of 108 million, which has been deluged for more than a week by the worst flood in recent memory.

At the same time, the government faces an uphill struggle to distribute the food and medical supplies to the two-thirds of the country which remain under water, diplomats say.

As flood waters begin to recede, about one-quarter of the population is homeless. And cholera and other diseases are spreading rapidly, health officials say.

``While the waters came very fast, they are receding very slowly,'' Information Minister Mahbubur Rahman said at a press conference.

``This year's flood was unprecedented. It really has, according to us, no definition and no description,'' Mr. Rahman said.

Bangladesh has already received pledges of more than $50 million in international aid to cope with the crisis, government officials said, including $13 million from Japan, $10 million from Turkey and $3.6 million from the United States.

That amount is in addition to more than $2 billion in annual foreign assistance which keeps the economy of this impoverished nation afloat.

Information Minister Rahman said that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar had more than 20 aircraft loaded with relief supplies and waiting to fly into Dacca, which has been cut off from the rest of the nation.

So far, according to the government's count, more than 500 people have died in boat accidents, or when their houses were swept away, or from snake bites. Diplomats and nongovernment sources say, however, that those estimates are far too conservative.

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