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UN estimates 1.5 million people affected by storm

world Updated: May 09, 2008 10:05 IST
Aung Hla Tun
Aung Hla Tun
Reuters
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The United Nations estimated 1.5 million people have been "severely affected" by the cyclone that swept through Myanmar, as the United States expressed outrage with the country's junta over delays in allowing in aid.

In Myanmar, despairing survivors awaited emergency relief on Friday, a week after 100,000 people were feared killed by Cyclone Nargis as it roared across the farms and villages of the low-lying Irrawaddy delta region.

"We're outraged by the slowness of the response of the government of Burma to welcome and accept assistance," US Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad.

"It's clear that the government's ability to deal with the situation, which is catastrophic, is limited," he told reporters on Thursday. <b1>

The UN food agency and Red Cross/Red Crescent said they had finally started flying in emergency relief supplies after foot-dragging by Myanmar's military rulers. The United States, however, was waiting for approval to start military flights.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters Washington was "fully prepared to help and to help right away, and it would be a tragedy if these assets" were not used.

The Navy said four ships, including the destroyer USS Mustin and the three-vessel Essex Expeditionary Strike Force, were heading for Myanmar from the Gulf of Thailand after the Essex deployed helicopters to Thailand for aid operations.

Witnesses have seen little evidence of a relief effort in the delta that was swamped in Saturday's cyclone -- the worst since 1991, when 143,000 people were killed in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Towns and hamlets in the Irrawaddy Delta were helping themselves in the absence of any outside aid.

"There are more than 1,000 people down there on the outskirts of Laputta," said one resident. "It's a refugee camp. Water is a big problem. So many people from here have made donations. They have given rice, vegetables and noodles."

Asked if survivors were angry at the regime, he said: "They need food and family. They don't need revolution."

Influx of foreigners

Some critics accuse the junta of stalling because they do not want an influx of foreigners into the countryside during Saturday's referendum on the army-drafted constitution that looks set to cement the military's grip on power. The plebiscite has been postponed for two weeks in areas worst-hit by the storm.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was seeking direct talks with the junta's senior general, Than Shwe, to persuade him to remove obstacles. A UN spokeswoman said Ban believed it might be "prudent" for the government to postpone the referendum.

UN humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes was asked by reporters if he suspected a link between the referendum and Myanmar's reluctance to grant visas to aid workers.

"The referendum may or may not be a complicating factor, but as I say, my focus is really on getting the aid to people as fast as possible," Holmes said.

Questioning the value of voicing outrage over the aid delays, Holmes said later that it was better to work with the government.

"It's not clear to me at this stage anyway that bludgeoning them over the head is going to make any difference or make it any better. We have to work with them," he told US National Public Radio.

Washington was hoping to get approval to send in a plane with aid that is ready to fly. Approval for such a flight would be significant, given the huge distrust and acrimony between the former Burma's generals and Washington, which has imposed tough sanctions to try to end 46 years of military rule.

The storm pulverized the Irrawaddy delta with 120 miles (190 km) per hour winds followed by a 12-foot (3.7-metre) wave that levelled villages and caused most of the casualties and damage.

While Holmes said the United Nations estimated at least 1.5 million people were "severely affected", Britain's UN ambassador, John Sawers, said it may be in the millions.

Myanmar state television did not give an update on Thursday night of the official death toll, which stood at 22,980 with 42,119 missing as of Tuesday. Diplomats and disaster experts said the real figure is likely to be much higher.

Shari Villarosa, charge d'affaires of the US embassy in Myanmar, said on Wednesday the death toll may exceed 100,000.

U.N. officials who had earlier complained the generals were putting up obstacles to an emergency airlift, said half a dozen cargo planes had been allowed to land at Yangon airport.

'Responsibility to protect'

France has suggested invoking a UN "responsibility to protect" to deliver aid to Myanmar without government approval. But its bid to make the Security Council take a stand has been rebuffed by China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia. Indonesia and China spoke against politicising the issue.

"There is already a readiness on the part of Myanmar to open itself to assistance," Indonesian Ambassador Marty Natalegawa told reporters. "The last thing we would want is to give a political spin to the technical realities and the situation on the ground."

Sawers, the British envoy, suggested that Britain also had doubts about invoking the "responsibility to protect" idea.

"That (concept) relates to acts of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and so forth, rather than responses to natural disasters," Sawers told reporters.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej failed to reach Myanmar's generals on Thursday due to communications problems after U.S. President George W Bush asked him to intervene over the aid delays, Thailand's government spokesman said.

"Some (aid) is getting through," World Vision Australia's chief executive officer Tim Costello told reporters in a conference call from Yangon. "But it's a trickle when it needs to be literally a flood."

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