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Villagers dispute cyclone death toll

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  • NEW: Thousands remain missing; estimated 4 million displaced
  • Villagers in Bangladesh say official death toll estimates lower than the reality
  • Many survivors of Cyclone Sidr still waiting for aid to arrive
  • Red Crescent Society official says deaths could rise to 5,000-10,000
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PATHARGHATA, Bangladesh (CNN) -- Five days after Cyclone Sidr struck Bangladesh, an overwhelming stench filled the air Tuesday as rotting bodies and animal carcasses floated in pools of stagnant water around the coastal city of Patharghata.

Villagers complained about lack of government help and suggested the official death toll estimates were far lower than the reality they see, according to CNN's Cal Perry who arrived there Tuesday.

Despite grim assessments from relief workers arriving in previously unreached areas, military chief Gen. Moeen Ahmad estimated the number of people killed would reach about 5,000. The Bangladesh Red Crescent chairman has said the death toll could reach 10,000.

The last official death toll from Cyclone Sidr, one of the worst storms to strike the impoverished country in recent years, issued Monday was 3,114, but many areas of the South Asian nation remained unreached by relief workers.

Gen. Ahmad made his estimate Tuesday as he visited a food distribution site on a small island off southern Bangladesh that was swamped by the storm, destroying 95 percent of the 500 homes and the whole rice harvest, CNN's Dan Rivers reported. Video Watch as people are left to fend for themselves »

Most of the residents of the tiny Island were evacuated to inland shelters ahead of the storm, keeping the number of deaths there to a minimum, Gen. Ahmad said.

The general said that while he was surprised at the level of destruction, there was plenty of warning and his country was well prepared for the storm.

But in Patharghata, residents told CNN they were not ready.

Perry spoke to a farmer who was in tears as he buried his 6-year-old daughter in his field.

"Where is the government?" the farmer asked.

In areas where the official government estimate listed just hundreds dead, villagers told Perry there were in fact thousands with many bodies still unrecovered.

The Category 4 cyclone raked Bangladesh's southwest coast on Thursday with maximum sustained winds of 240 kph (150 mph), destroying fishermen's hamlets and villages.

Thousands are still missing, while more than 4 million people have been displaced by the storm, according to Henrietta Fore, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Sidr was reportedly the strongest storm to hit Bangladesh since 1991, according to the U.S. State Department.

Improved warning systems and shelters have kept the number of deaths far lower than the disastrous cyclones in the region of 1970 and 1991, when the tolls were in the hundreds of thousands.

Bangladesh is appealing for more international aid to help survivors, many of whom have yet to receive food, fresh water and shelter. "At this time we will welcome support from the international community," the foreign ministry said.

A spokeswoman for the World Bank said Tuesday it will send Bangladesh $250 million in emergency aid.

The government said aid worth about $120 million had so far been pledged. The American Red Cross said it would provide $1.2 million (€819,000) to help get clean water to the survivors and build emergency shelters.

Saudi Arabia has pledged $100 million to help Bangladesh recover. Britain has offered $15 million and the United States has pledged and initial contribution of $2.1 million in emergency relief supplies.

In addition, the U.S. Navy is sending two ships -- USS Essex and USS Kearsarge -- each carrying 20 helicopters for relief-and-rescue operations, according to the State Department.

The naval ships aren't scheduled to arrive off the coast of Bangladesh until this weekend or early next week, U.S. military officials said.

A U.S. military medical team in Bangladesh is distributing pharmaceuticals to those either injured by the storm or at risk of illness as a result of the devastation.

USAID -- which prepared boats, water treatment systems and water ambulances ahead of the storm -- is setting up mobile water purification plants across the region to prevent an outbreak of cholera, Fore said on CNN's "American Morning." "Clean water is an issue here for everyone," she said.

Bangladesh President Iajuddin Ahmed visited the devastated region Sunday, handing out some aid to the crowds of people before members of the international media. It was seen largely a token effort as hundreds were left empty-handed and furious. Security officials struggled to hold back the crowd. Photo See dramatic photos of storm survivors »

Sidr has already ruined Bangladesh's rice harvest, but the international community is rallying to make sure the country does not suffer as acutely as it has in the past. Nearly a million people died after massive floods wiped out the country's rice production in 1974.

Clearing could take weeks in the remote areas because it must be done by hand -- there are no chainsaws and modern machinery to speed up the process.

Along the broken road that leads into Kolapara, the body of an 8-year-old girl called Rummie was carefully carried away for burial.

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Overwhelmed with sadness, her mother Khadija was steadied by a relative.

"I am feeling too much pain in my heart," she said. "I have lost my daughter, so I am a victim of the cyclone as well." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Dan Rivers and Cal Perry in Bangladesh contributed to this report.

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