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Myanmar accepts more US help for cyclone survivors

YANGON, Myanmar - Myanmar agreed to accept more American aid, officials said Tuesday, opening the door for what could be a massive relief operation as the UN warned that less than a quarter of victims' needs are being met 10 days after the devastating cyclone struck.


YANGON, Myanmar - Myanmar agreed to accept more American aid, officials said Tuesday, opening the door for what could be a massive relief operation as the UN warned that less than a quarter of victims' needs are being met 10 days after the devastating cyclone struck.

Logistical bottlenecks, poor infrastructure and restrictions imposed by Myanmar's isolationist junta were delaying the desperately needed aid for some two million severely affected survivors of the May 3 cyclone.

The government says about 62,000 people are dead or missing, but the UN has suggested the death toll is likely to be more than 100,000.

While the survivors - mostly poor peasants who grew rice for their livelihood - face disease and starvation, the authoritarian junta continued to bar nearly all foreigners experienced in managing such catastrophes.

It has largely only allowed supplies from the outside. Two U.S. planes and a UN convoy have already delivered aid. In an apparent concession, the junta seemed set to allow U.S. supply planes to continue to land Wednesday.

But armed police checkpoints were set up outside Yangon, the main city, on the roads to the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta, and all foreigners were being sent back by policemen who took down their names and passport numbers.

"No foreigners allowed," a policeman said Tuesday after waving a car back.

Despite the junta's restrictions, countless images of the misery in Irrawaddy have already stirred the world.

The survivors, who have become refugees in their own land, are packed into Buddhist monasteries or camped in the open, drinking dirty water contaminated by dead bodies and animal carcasses. Food and medicines are scarce.

People complain that the junta's soldiers are handing out rotten food while keeping the best for themselves. Thousands of children are orphaned and suffering from fever, diarrhea and respiratory infections.

"There is obviously still a lot of frustration that this aid effort hasn't picked up pace and gotten under way as quickly as it should have," said Richard Horsey, the spokesman of the UN humanitarian operation in Bangkok, Thailand.

He said the UN's World Food Program is getting in 20 per cent of the food aid needed. "That is a characterization of the program as a whole. We are not reaching enough people quickly enough," he said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has also criticized the military leaders for their "unacceptably slow response" to the crisis.

Hundreds of tonnes of aid has been flown in from around the world, including by the UN, but the poorly equipped Yangon airport is incapable of processing the cargo quickly enough. The logistics of moving the aid out are causing other bottlenecks with the junta insisting on using only the few helicopters it has at its disposal.

After Myanmar allowed a U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane into its main city, Yangon, on Monday, the United States sent in one more cargo plane Tuesday with 9,000 kilograms of blankets, water and mosquito netting. A third flight was to take in a 11,200-kilogram load.

On Monday, Myanmar told the United States - the fiercest critic of the junta's human rights record - that basic needs of the storm victims are being fulfilled and that "skilful humanitarian workers are not necessary."

The U.S. military, which has already brought forces to the region for its annual Cobra Gold exercise, has 11,000 troops, at least four ships and potentially dozens of cargo planes nearby that are ready to start assistance operations.

The operation has already been named - Joint Task Force Caring Relief. But officials say they will not push ahead without the approval of Myanmar's military rulers.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej plans to go to Myanmar on Wednesday to meet with junta officials and urge them to issue more visas to foreign experts, Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Patama told reporters.

The first UN aid convoy to reach Myanmar overland arrived Monday evening from Thailand with more than 20 tonnes of tents and plastic sheets.

Andrew Kirkwood, the Canadian head of Save the Children in Myanmar, in a conference call with reporters, lauded Myanmar's private sector for "picking up a lot of the slack" by selling aid groups clothing, materials for shelter and other relief supplies at cost price.

Yangon was pounded by heavy rain Monday and more downpours were expected throughout the week, further hindering aid deliveries. But for many, the rainwater was the only source of clean drinking water.

 
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