More than 100,000 people may have been killed in the cyclone in Myanmar, a US diplomat said on Wednesday, citing information diplomats were receiving from the devastated Irrawaddy delta region of the Southeast Asian country.
"The information that we're receiving indicates that there may well be over 100,000 deaths in the delta area," said Shari Villarosa, the charge d'affaires of the US embassy in Myanmar. She spoke with reporters by conference call from the capital Yangon.
State Myanmar radio and TV, the main official sources for casualties and damage, reported an updated death toll of 22,980 with 42,119 missing and 1,383 injured in Asia's most devastating cyclone since a 1991 storm in Bangladesh that killed 143,000.
Most of the victims were swept away by a wall of water from the cyclone that smashed into coastal towns and villages in the rice-growing delta southwest of Yangon.
"We estimate upwards of 1 million people currently in need of shelter and life-saving assistance," Richard Horsey of the United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told Reuters in Bangkok. He added that 5,000 square km (1,930 square miles) of the delta were under water.
Aid began trickling into Myanmar on Wednesday.
But there were worries abroad over whether the country's ruling military junta would overcome its distrust of the outside world and open up to a full-scale international relief operation.
Thailand, China, India and Indonesia were flying in relief supplies and the US President and Australian Prime Minister appealed to the Myanmar government to accept their assistance. France called for the UN Security Council to get involved.
The top UN humanitarian affairs official, John Holmes, said four Asian members of a UN disaster assessment team who do not need visas had received clearance to enter Myanmar on Thursday. A fifth non-Asian member is waiting for a visa.
Speaking at a news conference in New York, Holmes also called on Myanmar to waive visa requirements for aid workers.
Political analysts and critics of 46 years of military rule say the cyclone may have long-term implications for the junta, which is even more feared and resented since last September's bloody crackdown on Buddhist monk-led protests.
(Additional reporting by Darren Schuettler and Sukree Sukplang in Bangkok and Michael Perry in Sydney)