YANGON, Myanmar - United Nations helicopters fanned out across Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta Monday, a UN official said, ferrying critical supplies to villages struggling to survive since a devastating cyclone struck more than five weeks ago.
Four helicopters arrived over the weekend and started shuttling food and other emergency supplies on Monday to villages around the hardest-hit towns of Bogale and Labutta, said UN World Food Program spokesman Paul Risley. He said the helicopters reached four remote villages Monday morning.
"These are areas that clearly have not received regular supplies of food or other relief assistance," he said.
Helicopters are critical to reaching isolated areas and enabling aid workers to directly deliver heavy equipment like water purification systems that can supply clean water to villages cut off from basic necessities since the May 2 storm, he said.
Until now, the UN had only one helicopter operating in Myanmar that flew a total of six trips last week, Risley said. Supplies were mainly being delivered by boats that took several hours to navigate short distances in the delta's network of waterways.
Four more helicopters chartered by the UN food program, are expected to fly to Myanmar from neighbouring Thailand this week.
The relief effort still faces myriad problems, including a severe shortage of housing materials that could leave hundreds of thousands of survivors exposed to heavy rains as the monsoon season begins, the WFP and other aid agencies say.
"There's clearly a need for tarps and other roofing material, for anything that can help them rebuild their houses," Risley said. He said monsoon rains have left many delta villages knee-deep in mud.
The UN estimates a total of 2.4 million people were affected by Cyclone Nargis, and warns that more than one million of those still need help, mostly in the hard-to-reach Irrawaddy delta. The cyclone killed more than 78,000 people in the impoverished country.
UN officials and aid groups have criticized Myanmar's military regime for restricting access to the delta, saying it has prevented enough food, water and shelter from reaching desperate survivors.
Foreign relief workers still face hindrances in reaching cyclone victims, especially outside of Yangon, aid groups say.
Myanmar's ruling military junta has been criticized abroad for allegedly evicting cyclone survivors from refugee camps, supposedly without adequate provisions to survive elsewhere. The government has been sensitive to such criticism, issuing angry denials in state-run media that describe the accusations as lies meant to undermine the country's stability.
On Monday, all three state-run newspapers carried bold-faced slogans that urged the people of Myanmar to rally behind the government's side of the story and not trust what foreign news agencies are reporting.
Anti-government elements are feeding "the foreign news agencies stories about relief and rehabilitation that they have made up and shot on video," all three newspapers reported.
"Storm victims are hereby warned to remain vigilant with nationalistic spirit," the newspapers said.