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UN chief presses for more aid for cyclone victims

Ban Ki-moon presses the ruling generals to allow a full-blown international aid effort for 2.4 million people left destitute by Cyclone Nargis.

world Updated: May 22, 2008 10:28 IST
Patrick Worsnip

UN chief Ban Ki-moon flew to Myanmar on Thursday to press the ruling generals to allow a full-blown international aid effort for 2.4 million people left destitute by Cyclone Nargis.

The UN Secretary-General was driven down an avenue in Yangon lined with trees uprooted by the cyclone where workers were still shovelling debris into trucks, nearly three weeks after the storm left nearly 134,000 dead or missing.

Ban, who has said relief teams had been able to reach only a quarter of those in need after the May 2 storm and sea surge, signed a book of condolences at the foreign ministry and paid respects at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred site of Myanmar's Buddhists.

"We must do our utmost for the people of Myanmar," Ban said when he arrived in the Thai capital, Bangkok, on Wednesday before travelling to Myanmar. "Aid in Myanmar should not be politicised. Our focus now is on saving lives."

The United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, are to convene a donors' pledging conference in Yangon on Sunday.

The government wants more than $11 billion in aid, but international donors need access to verify the needs, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told Reuters in an interview.

"Accessibility is important to guarantee confidence and verify the damage and needs, otherwise confidence during pledging will be affected," Surin said on a visit to Yangon.

DELTA TOUR

Ban was to tour the worst-hit Irrawaddy Delta on Thursday before going to meet Senior General Than Shwe on Friday in Naypyidaw, a new capital 390 km north of Yangon.

Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win told reporters that Ban's visit was purely humanitarian.

Than Shwe, who took two weeks after the disaster to meet victims and see the destruction for himself, had declined to take Ban's phone calls earlier in the relief effort.

However, Yangon diplomats say the general's appearances in public this week, visiting several delta towns, could be a sign the top brass finally realise the enormity of the destruction and recovery from one of the worst cyclones to hit Asia.

The government's official toll is 77,738 people killed and 55,917 missing, and it also estimates the damage to one of Asia's least-developed economies at $10 billion.

The first of nine helicopters granted permission to airlift supplies into the delta was due to arrive in Yangon on Thursday, the UN World Food Programme said.

But according to the official media, the military government has turned down an offer from French and US Navy ships to deliver assistance to survivors. It underlined its suspicions of outsiders by saying that "strings attached" were unacceptable, without specifying what those conditions might be.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the ships would remain ready off the coast.

"For now, we think that the need is compelling enough that we ought to keep those ships there," he said. "It is very hard to turn your back and leave."

European Union lawmakers kept up pressure on Myanmar's military, which has ruled the former Burma for 46 years.

The European Parliament, which has no legal power over the bloc's foreign policies but can help shape opinion in the bloc, will vote on a resolution on Thursday urging the UN Security Council to consider whether forced aid shipments were possible.

The generals' distrust of outsiders is even greater after worldwide outrage and heightened sanctions imposed after the army's crackdown on democracy protests last September.