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Archive for Saturday, May 24, 2008

Myanmar to allow foreign help for cyclone victims

May 24, 2008

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— Myanmar's ruling junta said Friday it will let foreign aid workers and commercial ships help survivors in the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy Delta, but refused to relent on accepting aid from U.S., French and British military ships.

The ships, almost within sight of the coast for more than a week, offer a huge potential boost to the aid effort because they can send helicopters to the hardest-to-reach spots.

The military regime told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Friday that all aid workers would be let into the country as long as it was clear what they were doing and how long they would remain.

The Irrawaddy Delta, Myanmar's key rice-producing region, was decimated by Cyclone Nargis, but the xenophobic junta has kept it virtually off-limits to foreign aid workers.

An estimated 2.5 million people remain in severe need, threatened by disease, hunger and exposure because of the loss of their homes. The U.N. says only about 25 percent of survivors have received any kind of aid.

Official estimates put the death toll at about 78,000, with another 56,000 missing. Myanmar has estimated the economic damage at about $11 billion from the May 2-3 storm.

Under intense international pressure - and with an aid donors meeting scheduled for Sunday - Senior Gen. Than Shwe said he would allow in aid workers "regardless of nationality," Ban said.

Than Shwe refused to relent on the landing of the military ships, however.

According to Ban, the Myanmar leader "agreed that international aid could be delivered to Myanmar via civilian ships and small boats."

The U.S., Britain and France all have warships off Myanmar's coast ready to help. But Myanmar's junta is nervous about any landings because it fears invasion or political interference. It moved its capital from Yangon, the largest city, to this town in the north in 2005 in part because of such fears.

The junta is also wary of the political and psychological consequences of its people witnessing an efficient military-run aid operation by Western nations, which they have long accused of trying to undermine the country and turn it into a neo-colony.

Patience with the junta has been wearing thin.

At the United Nations in New York, France said Thursday it would push for a U.N. resolution authorizing the delivery of aid to survivors "by all means necessary" if pressure from Ban and Myanmar's neighbors does not open the aid pipeline quickly.

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