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Refusal to grant visas is unprecedented: UN

The UN blasted Myanmar's military government on Friday, saying its refusal to let in foreign aid workers was "unprecedented" in the history of humanitarian work.

world Updated: May 09, 2008 13:17 IST

The UN blasted Myanmar's military government on Friday, saying its refusal to let in foreign aid workers was "unprecedented" in the history of humanitarian work, while survivors of a devastating cyclone waited for food, shelter and medicine.

Myanmar's junta said Friday it was grateful to the international community for its assistance, which has included 11 chartered planes loaded with aid supplies. But the best way to help was to just send in material rather than personnel, the junta said in a statement. It said one relief flight was sent back after landing in Yangon on Thursday because it carried a search and rescue team and media who had not received permission to enter the country. It did not give details, but said the plane had flown in from Qatar, which apparently referred to a U.N. flight.

More than 62,000 people are known to have died or are missing from Cyclone Nargis that hit the country's Irrawaddy delta on Saturday. Shari Villarosa, who heads the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, said the number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because of illnesses.

The isolationist regime of this Southeast Asian nation has refused to grant visas to foreign aid workers who could assess the extent of the disaster and manage the logistics.

Paul Risley, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program, said the organization has submitted 10 visa applications around the world, including six in Bangkok, Thailand, but that none has been approved.

Even if the government changes its mind, there is no hope of getting any visas in Bangkok until Monday because of a Thai holiday Friday that has shut the Myanmar Embassy, Risley said. "The frustration caused by what appears to be a paperwork delay is unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts," said Risley, who is based in Bangkok. "It's astonishing." "We strongly urge the government of Myanmar to process these visa applications as quickly as possible, including work over the weekend," he said.

But there was no sign the junta was relenting. "Currently Myanmar has prioritized receiving emergency relief provisions and making strenuous effort delivering it with its own labor to the affected areas," said the junta statement, carried in the state-owned New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

The announcement came as critical aid and experts to go with it were poised in neighboring Thailand and elsewhere to rush into one of the world's poorest nations.

"Believe me, the government will not allow outsiders to go into the devastated area. The government only cares about its own stability. They don't care about the plight of the people," said Yangon food shop owner Joseph Kyaw, one of many residents angry at the regime for doing little to help them recover from the storm's destruction.

Among those waiting in Thailand were members of the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team. Air Force transport planes and helicopters packed with supplies also sat waiting for a green light to enter Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"We are in a long line of nations who are ready, willing and able to help, but also, of course, in a long line of nations the Burmese don't trust," U.S. Ambassador Eric John told reporters in Thailand's capital, Bangkok, on Thursday.

Myanmar allowed the first major international aid shipment Thursday _ four U.N. planes carrying high-energy biscuits, including one which was apparently turned back. On Friday, state-owned television showed a cargo plane from Italy with water containers, food and plastic sheets at Yangon international airport. Two of four U.N. experts who flew in to assess the damage were turned back at the airport for unknown reasons, but the other two were allowed to enter, said John Holmes, the U.N. relief coordinator.

It is not clear how much of the aid is reaching the Irrawaddy delta where entire villages have been submerged with bodies floating in salty water and children ripped from their parents arms. The U.N. estimates more than 1 million people are homeless. "The most dramatic situation is the case of children who have lost their parents. We don't know at the moment how many have lost their parents, relatives," said Juanita Vasquez, a representative of the U.N. Children's Fund in Myanmar.

By rejecting the U.S. aid offer, the junta is refusing to take advantage of Washington's enormous ability to deliver aid quickly, which was evident during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.

The first foreign military aid following that disaster reached the hardest-hit nation, Indonesia, two days later. The most significant help came when U.S. helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln began flying relief missions to isolated communities along the Indonesian coast.

With roads in the Irrawaddy delta washed out and the infrastructure in shambles, large swaths of the region are accessible only by air, something few other countries are equipped to handle as well as the United States.

Tim Costello, chief executive of World Vision Australia, said that "it's certainly the case that the Americans, as they showed in the tsunami, have extraordinary capacity."

On Friday, a Norway-based opposition news network, the Democratic Voice of Burma, reported that Myanmar navy lost several boats on the island of Halgyi in the cyclone. It gave no details.