Aid agencies are scrambling to mount a massive relief effort after military rulers in Burma, also known as Myanmar, said 22,464 people had been killed and a further 41,000 were missing feared dead after the weekend cyclone, according to Telegraph.

Foreign minister Nyan Win revealed that more than 10,000 people had been killed in a single town, Bogalay, as he gave the first detailed account of the scale of the disaster.

With the number of dead or missing growing by the hour a huge humanitarian crisis is looming with hundreds of thousands left homeless and without drinking water since Cyclone Nargis crashed into the coast on Saturday at 120mph, destroying entire villages and battering Rangoon.

As United Nations agencies warned of a disaster in the south-east Asian country, the normally isolationist dictatorship issued a rare appeal for international assistance.

The foreign minister asked Western diplomats for tents, medicine and water purification equipment.

“We will welcome help ... from other countries, because our people are in difficulty,” he said.

A first shipment of aid is expected to leave neighbouring Thailand later today.

Social welfare minister Maung Maung Swe told reporters that most of the town of Bogalay, one of the delta areas that bore the brunt of the storm`s force, had simply been washed away.

"Ninety-five percent of the houses in Bogalay were destroyed," he said. "Many people were killed in a 12-foot tidal wave."

Satellite images from US space agency NASA showed virtually the entire coastal plain of the country, one of the poorest nations on the planet, under water.

The government also said it would proceed this weekend with a constitutional referendum as part of its slow-moving "road map" to democracy, except in the areas hardest hit by the disaster.

America’s First Lady Laura Bush on Monday night called a press conference to promise aid to Burma - the first reaction from the White House since the scale of the crisis became clear.

But she accused the junta of failing to warn its citizens via the state-run media of the danger they faced from the storm.

Mrs Bush also said it would be “odd” if the country went ahead with Saturday’s planned referendum.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said the organisation "will do whatever (necessary) to provide urgent humanitarian assistance," and stressed that a disaster management team was ready to leave for Burma.

Mr Ban`s chief of staff Vijay Nambiar met with Burma`s UN Ambassador Kyaw Tint Swe. The talks focused on prospects for urgent grant allocations from the UN`s $500 million Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), as well as communications and coordination support to assist aid delivery.

Gordon Brown pledged that Britain would do everything it could to ease the suffering in the disaster-hit state.

Speaking to an audience of business leaders in central London, the Prime Minister said: "I believe nearly a million people are now need in need of food aid and we will have to help the families of those where people have died.

"I want to pledge on behalf of the British Government that we will work with the whole international community to make sure that food aid is available to the people of Burma."

But there were doubts about exactly how open the Burmese regime really is to foreign assistance. Diplomats asked ministers whether visas would be available to relief workers and whether duty would be waived on relief supplies. The ministers could give no such commitment.

The cyclone, which flattened thousands of buildings, ripped power lines, uprooted trees on key roads and disrupted water supplies, came days ahead of Saturday’s controversial referendum on a constitution which critics say will entrench military rule.

The junta has insisted that it would press ahead with the vote, but many in Rangoon said that they had other priorities.

The former capital, with a population of five million, took a direct hit. “We have no electricity, we have no water,” said one man.

Aid workers were meanwhile facing a desperate battle to help hundreds of thousands of Burmese. Western diplomats told The Daily Telegraph that the government had failed to make it possible for United Nations agencies to move swiftly to bring relief to thousands left without drinking water and shelter.

A UN source said that the organisation can deliver the first supplies within 24 hours of an official request, which would open Burma’s tight borders to aid shipments. But he added that no such request had been received.

A Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said of the generals who rule the country: “They are incompetent. They don’t care.

“You’d have thought, with a military government, they would get cracking and sort it out, but somehow I don’t think it is going to be like that.”

An international aid worker based in Burma said: “Normally it takes two weeks to get permission to go into the field. At this point, they are not deviating from that procedure.”

Tropical cyclones are immensely powerful low-pressure weather systems capable of generating ten times as much energy as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Nargis devastated a vast swathe of the country after hitting the coast, flattening thousands of buildings, ripping power lines, uprooting trees on key roads and disrupting drinking water supplies.

Burmese state television said five regions with a combined population of 24 million people had been declared disaster zones. Survivors in the worst-hit region, the densely populated Irrawaddy Delta, face a growing risk of disease and possibly hunger.

In Rangoon, the former capital and a city of five million people, the situation is dire after it took a direct hit from the storm.

The price of fuel has doubled since the cyclone struck, while many homes have been severely damaged and the water supply has collapsed.

Women came out on to the streets to wash clothes in the gutters when it rained last night. Broken trees and electricity poles littered the roads of the city.

There is also a danger that the price of food and other essentials could rapidly rise, adding to public discontent.

With the economy crippled by decades of misrule, and most people already struggling to meet their basic needs, many were quick to criticise the junta’s faltering response.

“We are really suffering, but the government don’t care, they are happy enough,” said one man.

Analysts believe that if the referendum goes ahead, there could be a significant “no” vote and blatant vote-rigging by the generals.

Circumstances exist for a political crisis to develop in what is already a dire humanitarian emergency. One diplomat said yesterday: “What on earth is going to happen to this poor country next?”

The devastation represents Asia’s worst natural disaster since the earthquake that killed more than 70,000 in Pakistan in 2005. The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 killed more than 200,000 in Indonesia and across the Indian Ocean.

While the Red Cross has managed to distribute water purification tablets and mosquito nets, Save the Children estimated yesterday that more than 50,000 are without shelter in three towns in the Rangoon region alone. It said that people are camping out in schools, monasteries, churches and mosques.

Win Myint, 38, a resident of Rangoon, told how he had fled his home moments before a tree ploughed into his home.

He scooped up his two-month-old daughter and ran through driving rain and winds into the face of the storm to seek shelter at a Buddhist temple in the satellite city of Dagon.

“We had to run for our lives during the storm at 3 am on Saturday,” he said. “We were frightened. We have nothing now. I don’t even have milk powder for my daughter.

“She is sick now. I have no idea what we should do. We got some rice, salt and oil from the authorities. But of course it’s not enough.”

By Graeme Jenkins in Rangoon and Katie Franklin, Telegraph