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Ban Ki-moon in Burma to press for relief operations

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Latest update : 2008-05-23

UN head Ban Ki-moon has arrived in Burma, three weeks after deadly cyclone Nargis, in a bid to get the military junta to accept a full-scale relief operation. Anaïs Boussat and Alice Beaumont report from the scene.

See Anaïs Boussat and Alice Beaumont's report on The forgotten people of Irrawady.

 

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon took "a message of hope" to Myanmar's cyclone victims on Thursday and pressed the military government to allow large-scale international aid for the 2.4 million people left destitute.

The U.N. Secretary-General was driven down an avenue in Yangon lined with trees uprooted by the cyclone where workers were still shovelling debris into trucks, some three weeks after the storm left nearly 134,000 dead or missing.

"I'm quite confident we will be able to overcome this tragedy," Ban told the trustees of the Shwedagon Pagoda, the Buddhist country's most sacred site. "I've tried to bring a message of hope to your people.

"At the same time, I hope your people and government can coordinate the flow of aid so the aid work can be done in a more systematic and organised way."

Ban has said relief teams had been able to reach only a quarter of those in need after one of the worst cyclones in Asia in decades.

He signed a book of condolences at the foreign ministry and later on Thursday will take a helicopter tour of the stricken villages of the Irrawaddy Delta southwest of the former capital.

The United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, are to convene a donors' pledging conference in Yangon on Sunday.

The government wants more than $11 billion in aid, but international donors need access to verify the needs, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told Reuters.

"Accessibility is important to guarantee confidence and verify the damage and needs, otherwise confidence during pledging will be affected," he said on Wednesday.

The government's official toll is 77,738 people killed and 55,917 missing. It also estimates the damage to one of Asia's least-developed economies at $10 billion.

MEETS SENIOR GENERAL

Ban was to meet Senior General Than Shwe on Friday in Naypyidaw, a new capital 250 miles (390 km) north of Yangon, where the junta lives in isolation from the rest of the country.

The government has allowed planes to land from several countries carrying emergency supplies, including some from the United States, its fiercest critic, but has been reluctant to allow more foreign experts into the disaster zone.

The generals' normal distrust of outsiders is even greater after worldwide outrage and heightened sanctions imposed after the army's crackdown on democracy protests last September.

The first of nine helicopters granted permission by the government to airlift supplies into the delta was due to arrive in Yangon on Thursday, the U.N. World Food Programme said.

However, the government continues to spurn offers from French and U.S. Navy ships to deliver assistance to survivors.

Underlining the junta's deep suspicion of outsiders, official media say that "strings attached" were unacceptable -- without specifying what the strings were.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the ships would remain ready off the coast.

"For now, we think that the need is compelling enough that we ought to keep those ships there," he said. "It is very hard to turn your back and leave."

European Union lawmakers kept up pressure on Myanmar's military, which has ruled the former Burma for 46 years.

The European Parliament, which has no legal power over the bloc's foreign policies but can help shape opinion in the bloc, will vote on a resolution on Thursday urging the U.N. Security Council to consider whether forced aid shipments were possible.

Date created : 2008-05-22

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