DHAKA Grieving survivors and rescuers picked through the rubble left in the wake of a cyclone that battered Bangladesh as the death toll reached over 2,300 on Sunday and a government official declared the disaster "a national calamity".
Mohammad Abdur Rob, chairman of the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, said the overall death toll from the cyclone could reach 10,000.
"Based on our experience in the past and reports from the scene I would guess the death toll may be as high as 10,000," he told Reuters.
Officials also expected the death toll to rise as the search for hundreds of people missing after Thursday's storm intensified.
Military ships and helicopters were trying to reach thousands of people believed stranded on islands in the Bay of Bengal and in coastal areas still cut off by the devastating storm.
The disaster ministry had recorded 2,300 deaths by 10 a.m. EST on Sunday, but local media put the figure at more than 3,500. A much improved disaster preparedness plan has been credited with saving scores of lives.
Officials in affected areas say the death toll given by the ministry is far below the real numbers.
"Some 2,000 people have died in my area alone," said Anwar Panchayet in Bagerhat district.
Pope Benedict called on Sunday for international aid for Bangladesh.
"In renewing my deep condolences to the families and the entire nation, which is very dear to me, I appeal to international solidarity," the pope said.
"I encourage all possible efforts to help these brothers who are suffering so much."
A huge effort was underway to get food, drinking water and shelter to tens of thousands affected by the storm, the worst to hit disaster-prone Bangladesh since 1991 when nearly 143,000 people died.
Cyclone Sidr smashed into the country's southern coastline late on Thursday with 250 kph (155 mph) winds that whipped up a five meter (16 feet) tidal surge.
Most of the deaths came from the surge washing away homes and strong winds blowing down dwellings. Many others drowned or were lost at sea.
US SENDING AID AND SHIPS
U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife have conveyed their condolences to the cyclone victims, as Washington offered an initial grant of $2.1 million for emergency relief, a U.S. embassy statement said on Sunday.
The USS Essex and the USS Kearsarge are sailing to Bangladesh help relief and rescue operations, it added.
The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society has appealed to the International Red Cross for $6 million for relief and rehabilitation in the cyclone-affected districts.
"Our relief teams have started emergency distribution, with an initial coverage of 100,000 people," Vince Edwards, national director of World Vision Bangladesh.
Helicopters flew sorties to devastated areas, dropping food, drinking water and medicine for the survivors.
"There are not many places where we can land," said one pilot, as large areas were still under water.
Several fishermen picked by a trawler from sea said they saw dozens of bodies floating in the waters near the Sundarban mangrove forest, a world heritage site and home to the endangered Royal Bengal tiger.
They also saw scores of dead deer and other wildlife floating in the Pashur river.
Tapan Chowdhury, a government adviser for food and disaster management, described the cyclone as a "national calamity" and urged all to come forward to help the victims.
Relief operators on the ground said supplies were still inadequate and that the government should make an immediate plea for more international aid to avert a "human disaster."
(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul, Serajul Islam Quadir, Masud Karim and Nizam Ahmed; Editing by David Fox)