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Cyclone's Aftermath Tests Bangladesh's Democratic Leader

BANGLADESH'S infant democratic government is grappling with the chaos following last week's cyclone, which killed more than 100,000 and left 10 million homeless. In power barely two months, the government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is being tested by the demands of a floundering relief effort, starvation and disease, political infighting, and reticent foreign donors.

The cyclone - the country's worst in two decades of independence - hit as Bangladesh was finding its democratic footing after years of military rule and seeking economic aid to combat destitution and suffering. Some Bangladeshi and Western observers wonder how the country and its government will be able to rebound from the crisis.

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"This lady [Ms. Khaleda] has been in office for less than two months, and a disaster of this magnitude has struck, putting her to the severest test," says a longtime government administrator.

"This has hit at a time when she had to deal with the problems of the budget, dealing with donors and pressure from the IMF for fiscal reform," says a Western diplomat, referring to the International Monetary Fund. "These were high on the agenda. How can she deal with all this?"

A week after the storm slammed into the ragged coast and offshore islands of southern Bangladesh, the still-uncoordinated relief effort inched along. A tiny fleet of helicopters (provided by the Bangladesh Air Force and other countries) was hindered in reaching stranded victims by rough weather, aid workers say.

The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, the country's largest charity, says that more than 125,000 people are dead and that the total could top 200,000.

The country's rudimentary warning and storm-shelter system worked better than in the past, say government officials and aid workers. More than 350,000 people were saved when they fled ahead of the storm to cyclone shelters built by the Red Crescent.

But officials say the system was far from adequate for the estimated 1 million people who live in cyclone-prone areas.

In the city of Cox's Bazaar on the battered southern coast, Abdul Kader, a day laborer, waited with an empty bowl while the prime minister was mobbed by hundreds of hungry people at a makeshift relief camp. Mr. Kader and his wife and three children survived because they were evacuated to a shelter, although they lost their house and their belongings. "I have been waiting since this morning for food, and so far there is nothing," Kader said.

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In the southern port of Chittagong, from which the Air Force was trying to ferry relief supplies to surrounding islands, Maj. Gen. Mahmudul Hasan, the area commander, told the prime minister: "Madame, give us more relief. Otherwise, we can't go there, because I'm afraid we'll be eaten up by the hungry people."

But government officials complained that crucial foreign aid was only a trickle. Foreign donors taxed by calamities in the Middle East and Africa have pledged only $120 million toward relief for the $1.5 billion in estimated damage caused by the storm.

In addition, officials in Khaleda's administration complained that Shahabuddin Ahmed, the powerful acting president, was only releasing a fraction of the $1.5 million in the government's relief fund. Political observers described the dispute as a bureaucratic clash between officials loyal to Khaleda and those loyal to the arrested former President Hussein Mohammed Ershad. Sheila Tefft contributed to this report from Bangkok.

Contributions to Bangladesh relief may be sent to:

* American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013.

* CARE, 660 1st Ave., New York, NY 10016.

* Catholic Relief Services, Bangladesh Relief Fund, P.O. Box

17220, Baltimore, MD 21297-0304.

* Save the Children, Bangladesh Emergency Fund, Dept. B-G,

54 Wilton Road, Westport, CT 06880.

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