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Myanmar opens door to help from Asian neighbors for cyclone victims

Myanmar began three days of mourning for cyclone victims on Tuesday, after its ruling junta appeared to relent to foreign pressure to allow more outside help.
AP | By HT Correspondent, Yangon
UPDATED ON MAY 20, 2008 08:18 AM IST

Myanmar began three days of mourning for cyclone victims on Tuesday, after its ruling junta appeared to relent to foreign pressure to allow more outside help for its storm survivors in the face of global outrage.

The regime said Monday it would allow its Asian neighbors to oversee the distribution of foreign relief to survivors of Cyclone Nargis.

It also approved a visit by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and prepared to host a meeting of aid donors, while claiming that losses from the May 2-3 disaster exceeded US$10 billion (euro6.4 billion).

The Monday announcement came as the official death toll for the May 2-3 storm stood at about 78,000, with another 56,000 people still missing.

Conditions, especially in the hard-hit low-lying Irrawaddy Delta area, remain precarious for the survivors, who face disease, malnutrition and exposure to the elements.

Heavy rain fell on the area again Monday, said the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, noting that such weather can have the benefit of providing clean water for those able to catch the downpour with plastic sheeting.

"However, the rain for many others simply adds to the misery as they look forward to their 18th night in often wretched conditions," said the IFRC in a situation report. "In addition, access to already relatively inaccessible locations is set to remain very difficult."

The IFRC remained concerned about the distribution of relief supplies, saying "Reports indicate that in most of the bigger affected townships, basic relief and food is available but much less so in the more remote areas."

It said there seemed to be problems even at some of the temporary relief camps set up by the government: "While significant relief is getting through, there are indications of mounting frustration among many displaced communities."

Myanmar, responding to entreaties from its Southeast Asia neighbors, promised Monday that it would let them into the cyclone-devastated areas to oversee and help in the provision of foreign assistance.

In Singapore, an emergency meeting of foreign ministers from the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to set up an ASEAN-led task force for redistributing foreign aid. "This mechanism will facilitate the effective distribution and utilization of assistance from the international community, including the expeditious and effective deployment of relief workers, especially health and medical personnel," said Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo.

Myanmar agreed to open its doors to medical teams from all ASEAN countries, Yeo said. ASEAN member Thailand had already sent teams in, as did non-ASEAN neighbors India and China.

Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win told the meeting that losses from the cyclone are expected to be "well over US$10 billion." ASEAN and the U.N. jointly announced an ASEAN-UN International Pledging Conference to seek some of the needed funding, to be held this Sunday in Yangon.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will arrive in Yangon on Thursday and stay until Friday night when he will fly to Bangkok. He will return to Yangon on Sunday to co-chair the pledging conference, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said in New York. He will tour the battered delta during his visit but it is not yet known which officials he will meet.

Earlier, junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe had refused to take telephone calls from Ban and had not responded to letters from him, Montas said.

John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, flew Monday by helicopter to the delta before returning to Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, to meet with international aid agencies, said a U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media. But the United Nations said the rest of its foreign staff were still barred from the delta and it described conditions there as "terrible," with hundreds of thousands of cyclone victims suffering from hunger, disease and lack of shelter.

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