UN 'disappointed' with Burma aid access

The United Nations' humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes said he was "disappointed" with Burma's poor record in allowing aid into the cyclone-struck nation after estimating that at least 1.5 million people were "severely affected" by the storm.


The United Nations estimated 1.5 million people have been "severely affected" by the cyclone that swept through Myanmar and the United States expressed outrage on Thursday at the delays in allowing in aid.

In Myanmar, desperate survivors cried out for aid nearly a week after 100,000 people were feared killed by Cyclone Nargis.

"We're outraged by the slowness of the response of the government of Burma (Myanmar) to welcome and accept assistance," U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad, told reporters.

"It's clear that the government's ability to deal with the situation, which is catastrophic, is limited."

The U.N. food agency and Red Cross/Red Crescent said they had finally started flying in emergency relief supplies after foot-dragging by Myanmar's ruling military junta. The United States was waiting for approval to start military flights.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was seeking direct talks with the junta's senior general, Than Shwe, to persuade him to remove obstacles. A U.N. spokeswoman said Ban believed it might be "prudent" for the government to postpone a constitutional referendum planned for May 10.

U.S. ambassador Eric John told a news conference in Bangkok earlier that the United States and Thailand thought the Myanmar generals had agreed to let a U.S military cargo plane fly in supplies to the reclusive southeast Asian country.

But that turned out to be premature.

"We don't have permission yet for the C-130 to go in, but I emphasize 'yet'" John said.

Approval for such a flight would be significant, given the huge distrust and acrimony between the former Burma's generals and Washington, which has imposed tough sanctions to try to end 46 years of unbroken military rule.

Witnesses have seen little evidence of a relief effort under way in the Irrawaddy delta region that was swamped in Saturday's storm. It was the worst cyclone in Asia since  1991, when 143,000 people were killed in neighboring Bangladesh.

"We'll starve to death if nothing is sent to us," said Zaw Win, a 32-year-old fisherman who waded through floating corpses to find a boat for the two-hour journey to Bogalay, a town where the government said 10,000 people were killed.


The storm pulverized the delta on Saturday with 190 km (120 mph) winds followed by a massive 12-foot (3.7-metre) wave that caused most of the casualties and damage, virtually destroying some villages.

The United Nations estimated at least 1.5 million people in Myanmar have been "severely affected," U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes said.

Holmes told reporters he was "disappointed" with the lack of progress being made in getting U.N. aid in.

Myanmar state television did not give an update on Thursday night of the death toll, which stood at 22,980 with 42,119 missing as of Tuesday. Diplomats and disaster experts said the real figure is likely to be much higher.

"The information that we're receiving indicates that there may well be over 100,000 deaths in the delta area," Shari Villarosa, charge d'affaires of the U.S. embassy in Myanmar, said on Wednesday.

About 1 million were left homeless.

U.N. officials who had earlier complained the generals were putting up obstacles to an emergency airlift, said a half-dozen cargo planes had been allowed to land at Yangon airport.

The Red Cross/Red Crescent confirmed its first aid plane took off from Kuala Lumpur, carrying six tonnes of shelter materials. The World Food Program said in a statement that it delivered 7 metric tons of high-energy biscuits to Yangon and two more aid flights were en route with clearance to land.

World Food spokesman Paul Risley said aid agencies normally expect to fly in experts and supplies within 48 hours of a disaster, but nearly a week after this cyclone, few have been able to send reinforcements into Myanmar.

France has suggested invoking a U.N. "responsibility to protect" to deliver aid to Myanmar without the government's approval. But its bid to make the Security Council take a stand was rebuffed on Wednesday by China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called his Myanmar counterpart, Nyan Win, on Thursday and urged him to make it possible for international aid workers and relief organization to reach hard-hit areas.

Some critics accuse the junta of stalling because they do not want an influx of foreigners into the countryside during Saturday's scheduled referendum on an army-drafted constitution that looks set to cement the military's grip on power.

The relief agency Medicins sans Frontieres, which has 1,238 people in Myanmar, said it was ferrying aid into the delta via trucks and boats.

"We are focusing on those still alive; 50 percent of them have wounds and they are infected," MSF official Frank Smithius in Myanmar told Australian radio.

"Because of the winds and high water, people got smashed around."

Jean-Michel Grand, executive director of Action contre la Faim in London, said the logistical obstacles were formidable.

"The roads are very poor or destroyed, and in many cases there were no roads before. Everybody's looking at boats."

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej failed to reach Myanmar's generals on Thursday after U.S. President George W. Bush asked him to intervene over the aid delays.

"We couldn't reach them because the communication towers have been damaged," government spokesman Wichianchot Sukchotrat said.

World Vision Australia's chief executive officer Tim Costello told reporters in a conference call from Yangon that there was some movement in allowing aid in.

"Some (aid) is getting through," he said. "But it's a trickle when it needs to be literally a flood."


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