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Aid reaches Myanmar, death toll ‘estimated’ at 100,000

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Nelson Alcantara  May 08, 2008

Aid is scheduled to reach cyclone-stricken Myanmar this morning, as the United Nations has been given the go-signal from Myanmar's military government. As of Wednesday, however, aid workers have yet to receive visas to enter the reclusive country.

This development comes as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the top United Nations humanitarian official today urged Myanmar authorities to facilitate the delivery of aid in the wake of the deadly cyclone that wrought havoc in five regions of Myanmar over the weekend.

The UN aid will originate from a UN warehouse in Brindisi, Italy and will include tents, water purification tablets, generators, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets, and blankets for Nargis survivors.

“The secretary-general believes that this is a critical moment for the people of Myanmar, and emphasizes the importance of providing as much assistance as possible in the vital first few days following the cyclone’s impact,” according to a statement issued Wednesday by the UN secretary generals’ spokesperson.

“Given the magnitude of this disaster, the secretary-general urges the government of Myanmar to respond to the outpouring of international support and solidarity by facilitating the arrival of aid workers, and the clearance of relief supplies in every way possible,” the statement added. “This can significantly aid the Government in responding to this tragedy.”

UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes echoed Mr. Ban’s call, stressing that “any delays are going to be potentially critical” in the face of such a disaster.

Members of a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team will be flying to Myanmar tomorrow to coordinate relief efforts together with the national authorities.

Mr. Holmes, who is also UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, stated that while assistance has started to arrive, the effort is clearly not adequate given the enormity of the situation. “We are faced here with a major catastrophe,” he told journalists at UN Headquarters.

The UN has been “intensely” discussing access for aid workers, visas and the easing of custom regulations with the government since the tragedy struck. “The cooperation is reasonable and I think heading in the right direction,” Mr. Holmes noted.

Mr. Holmes added that the UN will allocate at least $10 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for the aid effort. In addition, over two dozen countries have indicated their willingness to contribute to relief efforts, in the amount of $30 million. The UN is working with the Government to prepare a flash appeal to donors to be launched on Friday.

Cyclone Nargis, which made landfall in the Irrawaddy delta region and then moved across the country’s largest city, Yangon, caused widespread destruction, including destroying homes, tearing down trees and power lines and damaging communications.

Myanmar authorities have declared five regions – Yangon, Irrywaddy, Bago, Mon and Kayin – disaster areas. The combined total population of the disaster areas is around 24 million.

Mr. Holmes said the process of aid beginning to arrive has started. Humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are distributing food, water purification tables, plastic sheeting and health kits – just some of the most urgent needs.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) on Wednesday sent four aircraft loaded with critically needed food aid, including 45 metric tons of high energy biscuits, and other relief items.

“Time is of the essence and we are already reaching storm victims with food. We are mobilizing all possible resources to save lives given the massive disruption in food, water, and shelter caused by this storm,” said WFP Executive Director, Josette Sheeran, speaking from Washington, DC.

The WFP-chartered aircraft are expected to arrive at Yangon airport early morning today, the first UN flights to arrive in the city.

Meanwhile, a US official has raised the death toll from Cyclone Nargis to 100,000, five times more than the estimate from Myanmar’s military government. "The information we are receiving indicates over 100,000 deaths," Shari Villarosa, the US charge d'affaires in Yangon, told CNN.

The US estimate, according to CNN, is based on data from an international non-governmental organization, Villarosa said without naming the group.
The US official has described the tragedy "more and more horrendous."

More than 1 million people may have been left homeless since Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the country formerly known as Burma on May 3. Teams from aid group Doctors Without Borders found 80 percent of houses damaged and meter-high (3-foot) flood waters in some areas of Daala and Twante townships, where 300,000 people lived, in the Irrawaddy River delta area.

``Even in the best of times, it takes two days to reach the delta,'' said John Sparrow, Kuala Lumpur-based spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. ``You can imagine what it's like when bridges are out, roads are out and half the countryside is under water.''

The United Nations called on Myanmar's military rulers to allow international aid workers to begin relief operations as the prospect of a humanitarian disaster looms. Aid officials said the number of dead will rise without quick distribution of drinking water, food and medicine.

``Under these circumstances, infectious diseases such as cholera can spread easily,'' Doctors Without Borders said in a statement.

Rising Fatalities

The death toll may reach 100,000 as more bodies are found in the delta area, Shari Villarosa, the U.S. charge d'affaires at the embassy in Yangon, said in a conference call today. Myanmar's state television reported that 22,000 people have died and more than 40,000 are missing.

The UN's World Food Program said four flights containing a total of 45 metric tons of high-energy biscuits are on their way to Yangon, the largest city. They are scheduled to arrive early tomorrow morning.

The U.S., which has offered at least $3.25 million, assistance, is still trying to persuade ``the very paranoid regime'' to allow deliveries of humanitarian, Villarosa said.

``We have assets already in Thailand that can help, if Burma accepts our offer,'' said Major Carrie Hurd, spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's Honolulu-based Pacific Command.

U.S. assets include C-130 cargo planes, helicopters and the USS Essex, which has surgical rooms and 600 hospital beds. Some of the Marines in the region helped with relief after the 2004 tsunami, Hurd said.

U.S. Offers Help

The offer for aid came this week in a White House statement that also criticized the military junta and praised Burma's jailed opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

In the meantime, the U.S. may use its aircraft and boats to ferry relief supplies closer to Myanmar so other countries can then deliver them, Hurd said.

France tried today to raise the subject of Myanmar's obstructionism in the UN Security Council. Russia, China and South Africa fought France's proposal to be briefed by the UN's emergency relief coordinator, and the move failed.

``We are ready to send men, food, drugs, everything which is needed to help,'' said Jean-Maurice Ripert, France's ambassador to the UN. ``We are ready to do that but are prevented from doing that.''

The UN's World Food Program is distributing 800 metric tons of food stocks it holds in Yangon, the former capital, spokesman Chris Kaye said in an e-mail from Thailand.

Shipment Approved

Myanmar today gave permission for the Red Cross to send a plane load of supplies from Kuala Lumpur tomorrow, Sparrow said. The flight will deliver 300 shelter kits containing tarpaulins, mosquito nets, water and cooking utensils, he said.

The Red Cross has 20,000 more kits in its Kuala Lumpur warehouse, the Geneva-based organization said in a statement.

Other countries offering aid include the U.K., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Finland, Norway, China and European Union countries.

Myanmar's military rulers are ``suspicious of outsiders and very sensitive to foreign influences,'' Maureen Aung-Thwin, director of the Burma Project, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television today.

``They admitted to 22,000'' people killed, she said. ``I believe the figure is higher than that. Somebody said 150,000, and I don't think that's untrue.''

The Red Cross also hoped to send supplies via ship containers. However, the port at Yangon ``is blocked or even closed'' because of sunken ships and other damage, according to Richard Horsey, spokesman for the UN disaster response unit.

The impoverished country of 47.8 million people has been under international sanctions since the military rejected the results of elections in 1990. Transparency International last year ranked Myanmar as the most corrupt nation in the world along with Somalia.

Myanmar, ruled by the military since 1962, is scheduled to hold a referendum May 10 for a new constitution before elections in 2010. The government said the vote will go ahead, except in the worst-affected areas where it will be delayed until May 24.

The U.S. State Department says the referendum is an attempt by the military to retain power.

Aid reaches Myanmar, death toll ‘estimated’ at 100,000

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