Archive for Monday, May 19, 2008

Myanmar leader visits relief camp

May 19, 2008

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— The leader of Myanmar's ruling junta made his first visit to a refugee camp Sunday, patting the heads of babies and shaking hands with cyclone survivors, amid growing international criticism over the government's handling of the crisis.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, rebuffed so far in attempts to discuss the situation with the junta's leaders, announced he would go to the disaster zone Wednesday to try to ramp up aid efforts.

A senior British official hinted a breakthrough may also be near that would allow foreign military ships to join the relief effort, but warnings grew of a potential second wave of death among children hard-hit by the lack of fresh water and proper shelter.

Myanmar's state-run media lashed out at critics, detailing the regime's response. State television featured footage of junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe inspecting supplies and comforting victims in relatively clean and neat rows of blue tents.

According to the report, Than Shwe traveled from the capital, Naypyitaw, in the northern jungles, to relief camps in the Hlaing Thar Yar and Dagon suburbs of Yangon.

Some survivors clasped their hands and bowed as he and a column of military leaders walked past. At least 78,000 people were killed in the May 2-3 storm and another 56,000 are missing.

The situation remained grim in the devastated Irrawaddy delta south of Yangon, the country's capital until 2005.

In the city of Laputta, hundreds of children covered their heads from the rain with empty aluminum plates as they lined up in front of a private donation center. They were given rice, a spoonful of curry and a potato.

"Children only. Please. Children only," shouted a man who pushed back a crowd of adults. He explained they were feeding children and the elderly first because food supplies are limited and adults can still fend for themselves.

A breakthrough appeared to be on the horizon in the junta's dealings with the United Nations. Myanmar's military government has given permission for the U.N. secretary-general to travel to the Irrawaddy delta to visit areas hardest hit by the cyclone, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said.

Save the Children, a global aid agency, expressed concern Sunday about the thousands of children now suffering from severe acute malnourishment, the most serious level of hunger.

"When people reach this stage, they can die in a matter of days," said Jasmine Whitbread, who heads the agency's operation in Britain.

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