Thursday, May 8, 2008

Burma: 1 million in danger

May 9, 2008 - 6:43AM
AFP

More than one million homeless in Burma are battling to stave off disease and hunger, but the military government maintained tight limits on foreign assistance six days after a massive cyclone.

With death toll estimates near 100,000 and the clock ticking for those who survived, Burma's junta - long suspicious of the outside world - came under new pressure to fully open up to help from abroad.

Aid was only trickling in despite warnings that specialists were needed to deliver food and water into disaster zones strewn with rotting bodies, and it was unclear if the regime had yet given visas to foreign aid staff.

United Nations humanitarian chief John Holmes said he was "disappointed" with Burma over its failure to facilitate entry to more foreign relief workers and supplies to cope with the disaster.

And UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged the regime to focus on mobilising resources to cope with the cyclone disaster rather than on the upcoming constitutional referendum.

The United States, one of the junta's most vocal critics, announced it was not sending an aid flight after earlier saying it was, adding to the sense of confusion and frustration over the international relief effort.

The White House urged Burma to allow US disaster relief into the country while a State Department official said the US was mulling dropping food aid, hinting they may go ahead without Yangon's approval.

There are fears that many of those who survived the first tragedy may succumb to a second, falling prey to hunger and disease while the supplies that might save them languish nearby with no way - or no permission - to get in.

Aid groups said the country needs hundreds of planeloads of supplies and equipment to cope with Cyclone Nargis, which barrelled into Burma last week, unleashing one of the worst natural disasters in history.

They said help was slowly arriving, but not enough -- and not quickly enough -- for most of those in the stricken southwest Irrawaddy delta who saw their villages ripped apart or washed away.

The UN said four disaster experts received permission to travel to Burma, but there was no immediate word for hundreds of others awaiting a green light from the military, which has ruled Burma since 1962.

The UN's Holmes told reporters: "I am disappointed that we have not had more results" from discussions with the Myanmar government.

Holmes said UN chief Ban Ki-moon was trying to talk to junta leader Than Shwe to urge him "strongly to facilitate access" for foreign relief workers.

In a rare break from its policy of non-interference in its members' affairs, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) pressed the junta to soften its stance, as did China.

It is not known if all the remote delta settlements have been reached by the government. But with the devastation widespread, and apparently thousands of dead rotting on the ground, the regime upped the official death toll by 17.

State-run television gave the latest figures as 22,997 dead, 1430 injured and 42,119 missing.

But a military official in the delta township of Labutta estimated 80,000 dead there alone, and many families there told an AFP reporter most of their relatives had been killed.

"Houses collapsed, buildings collapsed, and people were swept away," one man said. "I only survived by hanging on to a big tree."

Around 5000 square kilometres remain underwater, and more than a million homeless need emergency relief, a UN spokesman said.

"The bottleneck (in aid) is getting it out in the delta. That needs boats, helicopters, trucks," said Richard Horsey, a Bangkok-based spokesman with the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Shari Villarosa, US charge d'affaires in Burma's main city Rangoon, said there could be more than 100,000 dead in the Irrawaddy delta, where 95 percent of buildings were reported to have disappeared.

Food prices in Burma, already one of the world's most impoverished nations, have soared.

Petrol on the black market, where most people obtain their fuel, has more than doubled.

Despite the crisis, the government said it plans to go ahead with Saturday's constitutional referendum as part of a slow-moving process to restore democracy -- a process critics say is only intended to cement the army's grip on power.

(AFP)

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