Friday, May 23, 2008

Burma 'to let in Western aid workers' 'Too little too late'

Some 2.5 million people have been affected by the cyclone
Burma's top leader has agreed to let all foreign aid workers into the country for relief work in cyclone-hit areas, UN head Ban Ki-moon has said.

African aid helicopters scrambled to Burma

USS Essex navy ship stationed near Burma, ready to help cyclone victims

It's unclear whether the Burmese offer applies to military aid workers -- and whether American naval helicopters stationed off the Burmese coast can join the relief effort.

Burma earlier this week gave permission for just ten UN helicopters to begin relief flights.

But most of these are in Africa, and the UN has asked the US, Britain, Canada and Australia to help transport these large helicopters to Burma.

A BBC correspondent says the helicopters need to be dismantled first and reassembled upon arrival. He says this could take a week.

Mr Ban announced the news after talks in Burma's remote capital, Naypyidaw, with Gen Than Shwe.

Burma's military leaders had previously refused to allow a full-scale relief effort by foreign aid workers, and claimed everything was under control.

About 78,000 people died and 56,000 are missing after the 2 May cyclone.

Mr Ban said he thought Gen Than's decision was a breakthrough.

"I had a very good meeting with the senior general and particularly on these aid workers," he said.

"He's taken quite a flexible position on this matter."

'Show camp'

Gen Than also agreed to allow Rangoon airport to be used as an international hub for aid distribution, Mr Ban said.

It is not clear exactly whether he has agreed to give visas to foreign aid workers or let them into the Irrawaddy Delta to deliver aid.

Condoleezza Rice and David Miliband on aid to Burma
But the BBC's Laura Trevelyan, in Burma with the secretary general, says the move does appear to be a significant breakthrough.

The senior leader had until recently failed to respond to the secretary general's letters and phone calls.

On Thursday, Mr Ban flew over flooded rice fields and destroyed villages and visited a government relief camp in the Irrawaddy delta.

A UN official privately called it a "show camp", our correspondent says.

He said he was "very upset" by the devastation he saw, adding that the international community stood ready to overcome the tragedy.

'Too little too late'

Western governments have backed Mr Ban's visit, calling for pressure on Burma's leadership to do more to help the cyclone victims
UK Foreign Secretary David Milliband told the BBC: "The tragedy is that, for some people it is already too late, and it is certainly too little compared to the needs, but we have got to use the opportunity that exists."

"We've got to keep pushing that door open and working to ensure that those desperate people get the help that they need."

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the responsibility with the situation lay with the Burmese government.

"It's a quite unusual situation actually that you have a country in this desperate straits with its population in the circumstances that this population is in - and you get a kind of stone cold face about people who just want help," she told the BBC.

The UN estimates that only a quarter of the 2.5 million Burmese affected by the cyclone have received the help they need.

The Red Cross has said that in districts further south-west of those shown to Mr Ban, waterways were still clogged with corpses and that many people had received no aid.

One foreign doctor told the BBC many were drinking water from puddles, while children and old people were suffering from dysentery, dengue fever and dehydration.

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