Myanmar approves US aid cargo flight

Heavy rain forecast for next week to exacerbate situation; More than 60,000 dead or missing.

myanmar villagers 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
myanmar villagers 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
Myanmar's junta - under fire for failing cyclone survivors after seizing shipments of international food aid - agreed Friday to let a US cargo plane bring in supplies. American relief workers, however, were still being barred entry. Heavy rain forecast in the next week was certain to exacerbate the misery of an estimated 1 million survivors awaiting food, clean water, shelter and medicine. Diplomats and aid groups warned the number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because of illnesses and said thousands of children may have been orphaned. With phone lines down, roads blocked, and electricity networks destroyed, it was nearly impossible to reach isolated areas in the swamped Irrawaddy delta - especially without the benefit of experienced international aid workers and equipment. Survivors from one of the worst-affected areas, near the town of Bogalay, were among those fighting hunger, illness and wrenching loneliness. "All my 28 family members have died," said Thein Myint, a 68-year-old fisherman who was overcome by tears and trauma as he tried to explain how the cyclone swept away the rest of his family. "I am the only survivor." Officials have said only one out of 10 people who are homeless, injured or threatened by disease and hunger have received some kind of aid in the six days since the cyclone hit. The government, which wants full control of relief operations, has only a few dozen helicopters, most which are small and old. It also has about 15 transport planes, primarily small jets not able to carry hundreds of tons of supplies. "Not only don't they have the capacity to deliver assistance, they don't have experience," said Mark Farmaner, director of the pro-democracy Burma Campaign UK. "It's already too late for many people. Every day of delays is costing thousands of lives." On Friday, Myanmar's military rulers seized two planeloads containing enough high-energy biscuits to feed 95,000 people sent by the UN World Food Program, which briefly suspended help after the action. It later agreed to send two more planes to the isolated nation to help hungry and homeless survivors. The government acknowledged taking control of the shipments and said it plans to distribute the aid itself to the affected areas. In a statement emailed to The Associated Press, government spokesman Ye Htut said the junta had clearly stated what it would do and denied the action amounted to a seizure. "I would like to know which person or organization (made these) these baseless accusations," he said. Shari Villarosa, the US charge d'affaires in Yangon, said she met with Myanmar Deputy Foreign Minister Kyaw Thu on Friday to discuss American relief operations. Myanmar said it will accept aid from all countries, but prohibits the entry of foreign workers who would deliver and manage the operations. The junta is not ready to change that position, Villarosa said she was told. But Myanmar, also known as Burma, has agreed to allow a single US cargo aircraft to bring in relief supplies for victims of a cyclone, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stuart Upton said Friday. "We hope that this is the beginning of broader support between the United States and Burma to help the Burmese people," he said. The US has an enormous ability to deliver aid quickly, evident during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations. More than 60,000 people are dead or missing and entire villages are submerged in the Irrawaddy delta after Saturday's cyclone, but international aid organizations say the death toll could climb to more than 100,000 as humanitarian conditions worsen. The UN estimates 1.5 million people have been severely affected and has voiced concern about the disposal of dead bodies. "Many are not buried and lie in the water. They have started rotting and the stench is beyond words," Anders Ladekarl, head of the Danish Red Cross. About 20,000 body bags were being sent so volunteers from the Myanmar chapter of the Red Cross can start collecting bodies, he said. The UN's World Meteorological Organization said its models forecast three days of strong rain next week that could dump 4 inches (10 centimeters) in Myanmar beginning Thursday or Friday. Heavy rain could worsen the situation in the storm-affected coastal region, the meteorological agency said, though it cautioned that forecasts beyond five days could change. The lack of water and the threat of food shortages in the region have led to dramatic price increases. In Yangon, the cost of water has shot up by more than 500 percent, and rice and oil jumped by 60 percent over the last three days, the Danish Red Cross said. The UN has grown increasingly critical of Myanmar's refusal to let in foreign aid workers who could assess the extent of the disaster with the junta apparently overwhelmed. None of the 10 visa applications submitted by the WFP has been approved. The UN always requires experienced aid workers to accompany relief supplies in every recipient country until they are delivered, officials said. "Those are the rules," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "We have to be accountable to our donors in the states that paid for this assistance and we have to be transparent. We have to be sure the aid is reaching the victims." The junta said in a statement Friday it was grateful to the international community for its assistance but the best way to help was just to send in material rather than personnel. Relief workers have reached 220,000 cyclone victims, only a small fraction of the number of people affected, the Red Cross said Friday. "Believe me, the government will not allow outsiders to go into the devastated area," said Yangon food shop owner Joseph Kyaw. "The government only cares about its own stability. They don't care about the plight of the people." Three Red Cross aid flights loaded with shelter kits and other emergency supplies landed in Myanmar Friday without incident. "We are not experiencing any problems getting in (unlike) the United Nations," Danish Red Cross spokesman Hans Beck Gregersen said. One relief flight was sent back after landing in Yangon on Thursday because it carried a search-and-rescue team and media representatives who had not received permission to enter the country, the junta said. It did not give details, but said the plane had flown in from Qatar. According to state media, 23,335 people died and 37,019 are missing from Cyclone Nargis. Grim assessments were made about what lies ahead. The aid group Action Against Hunger noted that the delta region is known as the country's granary, and the cyclone hit before the harvest. "If the harvest has been destroyed this will have a devastating impact on food security in Myanmar," the group said. The UN was putting together an urgent appeal to fund aid efforts over the next six months. The International Organization for Migration said it is asking for US$8 million (€5.2 million) as part of the appeal. The UN refugee agency said it needs $6 million (€3.9 million) to fund the immediate shelter and household needs of 250,000 people.