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Myanmar junta slammed over cyclone response

world Updated: Feb 27, 2009 11:28 IST

Myanmar's military junta could be guilty of crimes against humanity for obstructing aid and hampering relief efforts after last year's devastating Cyclone Nargis, health groups said on Friday.

In a report, the US-based Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Thai-Myanmar border group the Emergency Assistance Team (EAT) document abuses after the disaster which battered Myanmar's southern delta last May.

"The report charges these abuses may constitute crimes against humanity," the groups said in a press release.

Chris Beyrer, director of Johns Hopkins' Centre for Public Health and Human Rights, said the junta in the country formerly known as Burma had violated international laws on humanitarian and disaster relief.

"The people of the delta told us how the Burmese military regime hindered cyclone relief efforts, confiscated aid supplies and land, and used forced labour, including forced child labour, in its reconstruction efforts," he said.

Cyclone Nargis left about 138,000 people dead or missing and 2.4 million severely affected through the loss of family members, homes or jobs.

But despite a massive international relief push, the secretive junta stalled on issuing visas to foreign aid workers and blocked some humanitarian supplies from entering the country, drawing worldwide condemnation.

The regime relented after a personal visit by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, but since the disaster has arrested Myanmar's most famous comedian and a sports writer after they organised independent aid deliveries.

Comedian Zarganar was sentenced to 45 years in prison in November while sports writer Zaw Thet Htwe got a 15-year jail term.

"It is inhumane that Burmese people have been jailed for offering charitable assistance and comfort to their suffering countrymen," said Cynthia Maung of the EAT, which sent aid workers into Myanmar after the cyclone.

In a press release, the groups say the junta "should be referred by the United Nations Security Council for investigation by the International Criminal Court for its human rights abuses in the wake of Cyclone Nargis."

The report contains interviews conducted between June and November 2008 with 90 relief workers and cyclone survivors, who listed problems including misappropriation and theft of aid supplies and forced relocation of cyclone survivors.

The United Nations said earlier this month that cyclone victims were still in desperate need of international help, and launched a three-year recovery plan costing 691 million dollars.