Myanmar Death Toll Reaches 22,500

YANGON, Myanmar -- Myanmar's military government raised its death toll from Cyclone Nargis on Tuesday to nearly 22,500 with a further 41,000 missing, nearly all of them from a massive storm surge that swept into the Irrawaddy delta.

The United Nations' World Food Program began doling out emergency rice in Yangon, and the first batch of more than $10 million worth of foreign aid arrived from Thailand on Tuesday, but a lack of specialized equipment slowed distribution.

Despite the magnitude of the disaster -- the most devastating cyclone to hit Asia since 1991, when 143,000 people died in Bangladesh -- France said the ruling generals were still placing too many conditions on aid.

"The United Nations is asking the Burmese government to open its doors. The Burmese government replies: 'Give us money, we'll distribute it'. We can't accept that," Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told the French parliament.

Of the dead, only 671 were in the former capital, Yangon, and its outlying districts, state radio said. The rest were all in the vast swamplands of the delta.

"More deaths were caused by the tidal wave than the storm itself," Minister for Relief and Resettlement Maung Maung Swe told a news conference in the rubble-strewn city of five million, where food and water supplies are running low.

"The wave was up to 3.5 meters high and it swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages," he said, giving the first detailed description of the weekend cyclone. "They did not have anywhere to flee."

As many as 10,000 people died in one coastal town alone.

Information Minister Kyaw Hsan said the military was "doing their best," but analysts said there could be fallout for the country's rulers, who pride themselves on their ability to cope with any challenge.

"The myth they have projected about being well-prepared has been totally blown away," said analyst Aung Naing Oo, who fled to Thailand after a brutally crushed 1988 uprising. "This could have a tremendous political impact in the long term."

U.S. President George W. Bush urged the regime to accept U.S. disaster experts, who have so far have been kept out, and said the United States stood ready to "do a lot more" to help.

"The military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country," Bush told reporters, adding that he was prepared to make U.S. naval assets available for search and rescue.

Reflecting on the scale of the crisis, the junta said it would postpone to May 24 a constitutional referendum in the worst-hit areas of Yangon and the sprawling delta.

State TV said, however, that the May 10 vote on the charter, part of the army's much-criticized "roadmap to democracy," would proceed as planned in the rest of the southeast Asian nation, which has been under army rule for the last 46 years.

Its political plans have been slammed by Western governments, especially after the bloody suppression of protests in September.

The total left homeless by winds of 190 kilometers per hour and a storm surge is in the several hundred thousands, United Nations aid officials say.