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Postcyclone challenge for Burma (Myanmar): deliver relief fast

The isolated junta sought outside aid as death toll projections topped 10,000.

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In a rapidly escalating death toll, a cyclone that ripped through Burma (Myanmar) on Saturday killed nearly 4,000 people, not 351 as originally announced, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in Asia since the tsunami of 2004, authorities said on Monday.

But that death toll, which accounts for only two of five areas hit, could rise as high as 10,000 in coming days, government officials said, while relief agencies warned that rescue operations would be critically hampered by the remoteness of the disaster region, home to 24 million people.

Concerns of higher death tolls have been further exacerbated by the political isolation of the military-led government of Burma, which has largely shut itself off from the outside world, and which many feared would reject international assistance.

But relief agencies said Monday they were confident that international relief would be allowed into the country, following a meeting between government officials and the head of the United Nations relief agencies in Burma on Monday. And state authorities issued appeals for international aid.

"The acting head of the UN agencies ... received positive indications that international assistance would be invited and accepted into the country," says Paul Risley, a spokesman for the World Food Program's Asia office in Bangkok, Thailand. "We are continuing assessments on the ground, and as soon as these assessments provide more details, we will be able to test that invitation.'

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