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Relief efforts hampered in Burma

Limits on visas delay delivery of supplies Deaths could top 100,000

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Associated Press / May 8, 2008

RANGOON, Burma - Hungry people swarmed the few open shops and fistfights broke out over food and water in Burma's swamped Irrawaddy delta yesterday as a top US diplomat warned that the death toll from a devastating cyclone could top 100,000.

The minutes of a UN aid meeting obtained by the Associated Press, meanwhile, revealed the military junta's visa restrictions were hampering international relief efforts.

Only a handful of UN aid workers had been let into the impoverished Southeast Asian country, which the government has kept isolated for five decades to maintain its iron-fisted control. The United States and other countries rushed supplies to the region, but most of it was being held outside Burma while awaiting the junta's permission to deliver it.

Entire villages in the Irrawaddy delta were still submerged from Saturday's storm, and bloated corpses could be seen stuck in the mangroves. Some survivors stripped clothes off the dead. People wailed as they described the horror of the torrent swept ashore by the cyclone.

"I don't know what happened to my wife and young children," said Phan Maung, 55, who held onto a coconut tree until the water level dropped. By then his family was gone.

A spokesman for the UN Children's Fund said its staff in Burma reported seeing many people huddled in rude shelters and children who had lost their parents.

"There's widespread devastation. Buildings and health centers are flattened and bloated dead animals are floating around, which is an alarm for spreading disease. These are massive and horrific scenes," Patrick McCormick said at UNICEF offices in New York.

Burma's state media said Cyclone Nargis killed at least 22,980 people and left 42,119 missing.

American diplomat Shari Villarosa, who heads the US Embassy in Rangoon, said the number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because safe food and water were scarce and unsanitary conditions widespread.

The situation is "increasingly horrendous," she said in a telephone call to reporters. "There is a very real risk of disease outbreaks."

A few shops reopened in the Irrawaddy delta, but they were quickly overwhelmed by desperate people, said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the UN World Food Program in Bangkok, Thailand, quoting his agency's workers in the area.

"Fistfights are breaking out," he said.

A Rangoon resident who returned to the city from the delta area said people were drinking coconut water because there was no safe drinking water. He said many people were on boats using blankets as sails.

Local aid groups distributed rice porridge, which people collected in dirty plastic shopping bags, he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared getting into trouble with authorities for talking to a foreign news agency.

UN officials estimated some 1 million people had been left homeless in Burma, which was renamed Myanmar by the military government.

Some aid workers said heavily flooded areas were accessible only by boat, with helicopters unable to find dry spots for landing relief supplies.

"Basically the entire lower delta region is under water," said Richard Horsey, the Thailand-based spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid.

International assistance began trickling in yesterday with the first shipments of medicine, clothing, and food.

But the junta, which normally restricts access by foreign officials and groups, was slow to give permission for workers to enter.

"Visas are still a problem. It is not clear when it will be sorted out," said the minutes of a meeting of the UN task force coordinating relief for Burma in Bangkok.

McCormick, the UNICEF spokesman, said the agency had 130 people in Burma but needed to get more in.

"We're hopeful they will start fast-tracking visas for humanitarian personnel," he said. "The government clearly weren't prepared and needs to step up to the plate. We can't work in a vacuum, and we need the host government to work with us and to eventually take over."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the junta to speed the arrival of aid workers and relief supplies "in every way possible."

As they wrangled with Burmese officials over visas, aid groups struggled to deliver supplies.

"Most urgent need is food and water," said Andrew Kirkwood, head of Save the Children in Rangoon. "Many people are getting sick. The whole place is under salt water and there is nothing to drink. They can't use tablets to purify salt water."

State television said Burma would accept aid from any country. It also said planes flew in yesterday with tents from Japan, medicine and clothing from Bangladesh and India, packets of noodles from Thailand, and dried bacon from China.

The first UN flights, carrying 45 metric tons of high energy biscuits, were due to arrive early today.

Some aid workers said in interviews that the government wanted emergency supplies to be distributed by relief workers already in place, rather than through foreign staff brought into Burma.

President Bush said the United States was ready to deliver aid and was prepared to use Navy ships and aircraft to help search for the dead and missing. But it wasn't known if the junta, which regularly accuses Washington of trying to subvert its rule, would accept an American military operation in its territory.

Three Navy warships participating in an exercise in the Gulf of Thailand were standing by. A US Air Force C-130 cargo plane also landed in Thailand and another was on the way, Air Force spokeswoman Megan Orton said at the Pentagon.

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