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Burma gives UN official access to cyclone disaster area

Secretary general is also expected to tour region

Children who survived Cyclone Nargis covered their heads from the rain with aluminum plates as they awaited food in front of a private donation center in Laputta, Burma. Children who survived Cyclone Nargis covered their heads from the rain with aluminum plates as they awaited food in front of a private donation center in Laputta, Burma. (Associated Press)
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Associated Press / May 19, 2008

RANGOON, Burma - Burma's military regime, which has barred almost all foreigners from its cyclone disaster zone, allowed the UN's humanitarian chief into the Irrawaddy Delta for a brief tour today, a UN official said.

John Holmes, the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, flew by helicopter into an area where hundreds of thousands of cyclone victims are suffering from hunger, disease, and lack of shelter.

The UN official, who requested anonymity since he was not authorized to speak with the media, said that after a few hours in the delta Holmes would return to Rangoon to meet with international aid agencies.

In what appeared to be a thaw in the junta's dealings with the United Nations, the government also gave permission for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to travel to the delta after his arrival here Wednesday, UN spokeswoman Michele Montas said in New York.

Earlier, junta leader Senior General Than Shwe had refused to take calls from Ban and had not responded to two letters from him, Montas said. Holmes, who arrived in Rangoon yesterday, was to deliver a third letter.

A senior British official hinted a breakthrough may also be near that would allow foreign military ships to join the relief effort, but warnings grew of a potential second wave of death among children hard hit by the lack of fresh water and proper shelter.

Than Shwe made his first visit to a refugee camp yesterday, patting the heads of babies and shaking hands with cyclone survivors, amid growing international criticism over the government's handling of the crisis.

Burma's state-run media lashed out at critics, detailing the regime's response. State television featured footage of the junta leader inspecting supplies and comforting victims in relatively clean and neat rows of blue tents.

According to the report, Than Shwe traveled from the capital, Naypyitaw, in the northern jungles, to relief camps in the Hlaing Thar Yar and Dagon suburbs of Rangoon.

Some survivors clasped their hands and bowed as he and a column of military leaders walked past. At least 78,000 people were killed in the May 2-3 storm and another 56,000 are missing.

In the devastated Irrawaddy Delta to the south of Rangoon, the situation remained grim.

In the city of Laputta, hundreds of children covered their heads from the rain with empty aluminum plates as they lined up in front of a private donation center. They were given rice, a spoonful of curry, and a potato.

"Children only. Please. Children only," shouted a man who pushed back a crowd of adults. He explained they were feeding children and the elderly first because food supplies are limited and adults can fend for themselves.

In one of the few positive notes of the day, Lord Malloch-Brown, the British foreign office minister, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that he believes the rulers of Burma, who have given the country the name Myanmar, may soon relent on allowing military ships to join in the relief effort, especially if Asian go-betweens are involved.

"I think you're going to see quite dramatic steps by the Burmese to open up," he said.

Burma's leaders, angered by criticism of their handling of the crisis, stepped up their rhetoric yesterday even amid warnings by Save the Children that thousands of children face starvation.

The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said in an editorial yesterday that the government, "mobilizing the cooperation of the people, social organizations, and departments," has rushed to carry out relief and rehabilitation tasks.

"Necessary measures are being taken constantly to attend to the basic needs of the people in the relief camps, while specialists are making field trips to the storm-struck areas to provide healthcare," it said.

The publication accused foreign news agencies of broadcasting false information that has led international organizations to assume that the government is rejecting aid. "Those who have been to Myanmar understand the actual fact," it said.

State-run radio said the government has so far spent about $2 million for relief work and has received millions of dollars worth of relief supplies from local and international donors.

Still, aid agencies say some 2.5 million survivors are in desperate need of help - food, shelter from intermittent monsoon rains, medicines, clean drinking water, and sanitation. A UN report said Saturday that emergency relief from the international community had reached only 500,000 people.

Save the Children, a global aid agency, expressed concern yesterday about the thousands of children now suffering from severe acute malnourishment, the most serious level of hunger.

"When people reach this stage, they can die in a matter of days," said Jasmine Whitbread, who heads the agency's operation in Britain.

UN and other major international aid agencies such as World Vision have been forced to depend on their limited local staff in Burma to distribute aid in the delta, and say a much greater effort is needed if more diseases and deaths are to be prevented.

Although US, British, and French warships loaded with aid are just off its coastline, Burma has refused to let them join in relief efforts.

Malloch-Brown said Britain and Burma had reached a kind of consensus over the direction of the aid operation under which Asian countries such as India, China, Thailand and Indonesia would take the lead in conjunction with the UN.

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