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Transport, visa hurdles slowing aid to victims of Myanmar cyclone

GENEVA - Travel and visa obstacles on Tuesday hampered aid deliveries to the hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar now believed to be homeless after the devastating cyclone, officials said.


GENEVA - Travel and visa obstacles on Tuesday hampered aid deliveries to the hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar now believed to be homeless after the devastating cyclone, officials said.

But a green light from Myanmar's military rulers on accepting international aid has started the global relief effort rolling. "This assistance is on its way," said United Nations relief spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs, but she said UN workers planning to assess needs are still awaiting their visas to enter the country.

The death toll in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, was in the tens of thousands with many more still missing, state radio reported Tuesday. As many as one million people may have been left homeless.

The European Union would be providing $3.1 million, according to a statement released by Slovenia, president of 27-country bloc.

However, the United States, France and others complained about Myanmar's reluctance to accept direct aid.

President George W. Bush called on Myanmar's military junta to allow the United States to help with disaster assistance, saying the U.S. already has provided some assistance but wants to do more.

"We're prepared to move U.S. navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation. But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country," he said.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said France was putting up 25 per cent of the multimillion-dollar EU contribution.

But Kouchner complained that officials in Myanmar were insisting on distributing an additional French contribution of just over $300,000 themselves, which he said was "not a good way of doing things."

"It's not a lot but we don't really trust the way the Burmese ministry would use the money," said Kouchner, who is also a co-founder of French aid group Doctors Without Borders.

Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier Bernier said in a statement earlier that Canada was calling on "Burmese authorities to provide full and unhindered access to humanitarian organizations to allow them to assist with the relief efforts."

Canada has set aside up to $2 million for urgent relief. International Co-operation Minister Beverley Oda said Ottawa was working closely with UN agencies, the Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations to determine how "Canada's support can best meet the humanitarian needs of the people, once access is allowed by the Burmese government."

Anne-Francoise Moffroid, the EU desk officer dealing with the crisis, said it was difficult to know how many people will need aid. Affected areas are isolated and difficult to reach and infrastructure has been destroyed, she said.

"Many volunteers from the local Red Cross have died in the disaster," she said. "I think it will be a major challenge to bring assistance to these areas."

Simon Horner, spokesman for the EU humanitarian office, called it "a massive disaster," particularly in the Irrawaddy delta.

"The reports that are coming back from some of our partner organizations ... is that there are some communities where the destruction is close to 100 per cent," Horner said.

The military government generally makes it difficult for aid workers to move around the country without permission, and obtaining visas to bring in more international staff also is an obstacle.

The UN emergency relief co-ordinator said that a number of organizations felt visas were "a concern" and that the United Nations was asking the Myanmar government to ease the situation.

"Since we now have the green light for international aid to go there, I hope we will get the visas as soon as possible," UNICEF spokeswoman Veronique Taveau said.

The UN, Red Cross and other aid organizations have been organizing shipments to the country.

"Our first shipment is arriving today," said Eric Porterfield, spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

He said the federation was working with the Myanmar Red Cross, which has been playing a leading role in the initial distribution of aid.

The national Red Cross staff and 18,000 volunteers are handing out plastic sheets, drinking water, insecticide-treated bed nets and clothes, Porterfield said.

Indonesia, the country hardest hit by the 2004 Asian tsunami, pledged $1 million in aid on Wednesday.

China is providing $1 million in aid, including relief materials worth $500,000, to help with disaster relief and rehabilitation efforts, a spokesman said.

The Norwegian government alone said it would give up to $1.96 million. Spain said it would donate $775,000 to the World Food Program, while Switzerland said it would send an initial $475,000 and the Swiss Red Cross $190,000.

Singapore said it will provide $200,000 for tents, ground sheets, sleeping bags, medical supplies, drinking water and emergency food. The Czech government allocated $154,000, while Denmark said it was giving $103,600.

Sweden offered logistical support and water cleaning systems to the UN operation.

With files from The Canadian Press

 
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