Myanmar junta opens up to foreign aid workers, deliveries by 'civilian' ships

YANGON, Myanmar - Myanmar's junta has agreed to allow all aid workers into the country after weeks of refusing access to foreign relief experts seeking to help cyclone survivors, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Friday.


YANGON, Myanmar - Myanmar's junta has agreed to allow all aid workers into the country after weeks of refusing access to foreign relief experts seeking to help cyclone survivors, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Friday.

Ban said the government also agreed to let in aid "via civilian ships and small boats," wording suggesting that U.S., British and French warships waiting off Myanmar's coast with relief supplies would not be allowed to dock.

Myanmar's military government did not immediately confirm the agreement and there was no indication how quickly it would be take effect.

"This agreement can produce results and the implementation will be the key," Ban said at a news conference after returning to Yangon, the country's biggest city. He earlier met for two hours in the capital, Naypyitaw, with junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

"I believe they will honour their promise," Ban added.

A senior UN official present at the meeting said Than Shwe gave the green light for foreigners to work in the hardest-hit region, the Irrawaddy Delta, which until now has been virtually off-limits to them.

Ban said, without elaborating, that he was told foreign aid workers would be given "unhindered access to affected areas" and that they would be allowed in regardless of nationality.

"He (Than Shwe) has taken a flexible position on that issue that until now has been an obstacle to organizing ... full effective international aid," Ban said.

At least 78,000 people were killed and another 56,000 are missing as a result of cyclone Nargis. An additional 2.5 million survivors are at risk from disease, starvation and exposure to monsoon rains, according to a UN estimate.

The devastation has produced an outpouring of international aid, but bottlenecks created by Myamar's military rulers has slowed aid delivery to cyclone victims.

Canada announced a initial donation of up to $2 million in emergency aid on May 8, including the delivery of 2,000 emergency shelter kits via a Canadian Forces C-17 Globemaster aircraft that landed in Bangkok, Thailand, last weekend.

On Friday, International Co-Operation Minister Beverley Oda announced and additional contribution of up to $12 million.

"We are working with the United Nations and other trusted Canadian and international organizations to provide supplementary relief efforts such as food distribution and critical shelter, health and nutrition, and water and sanitation initiatives," Oda said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier has also offered the use of a C-17, the military's biggest aircraft, to deliver UN World Food Program helicopters to Myanmar. The junta earlier gave the UN agency permission to use 10 helicopters to fly emergency aid to stranded victims.

Meanwhile, Ban said Than Shwe has agreed to make Yangon the logistics hub of the aid operation, which the UN chief called "an important development."

"This is a significant step forward, and could be a turning point in the aid response," said Brian Agland, who heads the U.S.-based aid group CARE in Myanmar. "We welcome the agreement."

In Geneva, international aid agencies said they were ready to step up relief efforts as soon as they learn the "practical details" of the country's new commitment.

"I cannot give you a precise figure for the aid workers who are supposed to come in, but we would like to get more experts on board," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization warned that hundreds of thousands of people in remote areas of the delta have insufficient food, and said prices for rice, cooking oil and other basics had doubled throughout the country.

Only a "very narrow window of opportunity" remains to provide seeds and other material to farmers before the rice planting season, upon which millions depend, begins in a few weeks, the agency said.

It added that half the cattle and buffaloes in 10 townships surveyed perished during the storm.

The 76-year-old Than Shwe - reclusive, superstitious and known as "the bulldog" for his stubbornness - had refused to answer Ban's calls from New York or to answer two letters sent to him by the secretary-general.

But as Ban's visit proceeded, the regime appeared to ease some of its restrictions on foreigners.

France-based Doctors Without Borders said it now had some foreign staffers working in four areas of the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta, which had previously been virtually off limits to non-Myanmar relief workers.

Myanmar's military regime has been eager to show that it has the relief effort under control, despite spurning the help of foreign disaster experts. But the UN estimates that aid has reached only about 25 per cent of those in need.

Back in Yangon, Ban paid a private visit to the mausoleum of U Thant, the late Myanmar-born former UN secretary general who held the job from 1961 until 1971.

It was not known whether Ban discussed with junta leaders the fate of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose latest period of detention expires Monday. A string of UN envoys have in the past failed to gain the release from house arrest of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

With files from The Canadian Press

 
 
Latest From ...
Most Popular From ...