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Aid arrives in Myanmar as death toll passes 22,000, but worst-hit area still cut off

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Time Zone: EST (New York, Toronto)
Messenger: Nick1234 Sent: 5/6/2008 2:40:09 PM
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Aid began to trickle into cyclone-ravaged Myanmar late Tuesday but the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta, where nearly 22,000 people perished, was largely cut off from the rest of the world four days after winds, floods and high tidal waves tore through the densely populated region.

With more than 40,000 still missing and as many as 1 million possibly left homeless, the international community was struggling to deliver aid in the military-ruled country, which normally seeks to shut out foreign officials and restricts their access inside the country.

The U.N.'s World Food Program said late Tuesday it has begun distributing aid in damaged areas of Yangon, the largest city, where 800 tons of food had arrived.

But the WFP said in a statement worst-hit coastal areas including the Irrawaddy delta were out of reach for aid workers due to flooding and road damage.

Electricity remained cut for the fourth day for almost all 6.5 million residents of Yangon, while water supply was restored in only a few areas. Some residents had to wait for nine hours to fill up their gas tanks.

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Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns wielding knives and axes joined residents in clearing roads of ancient, fallen trees that were once the city's pride. And soldiers were out on the streets in large numbers for the first time since the cyclone hit, helping to clear trees as massive as 15-feet (4.5 meters) in diameter.

Concerns mounted over the lack of food, water and shelter in the delta as well as diseases spawned by Cyclone Nargis in a country with one of the world's poorest health systems.

"Our biggest fear is that the aftermath could be more lethal than the storm itself," said Caryl Stern, who heads the U.N. Children's Fund in the United States.

U.S. President George W. Bush called on the country's junta to allow the United States to provide disaster assistance, saying Washington was prepared to move naval assets to help search for the dead and missing.

The U.S. Navy has three ships as well as troops in the Gulf of Thailand, within an easy sail of Myanmar, as part of joint military exercises code-named Cobra Gold scheduled for May 8-21. Thailand, Japan, Indonesia and Singapore will also take part in the annual war games.

The Myanmar military, which regularly accuses the United States of trying to subvert the regime, is unlikely to allow U.S. military presence in its territory.

But reflecting the seriousness of the crisis, the government has appealed for foreign aid and also announced Tuesday that it is delaying Saturday's crucial constitutional referendum in the hardest hit areas.

State radio said Saturday's vote on the military-backed draft constitution would be delayed until May 24 in 40 of 45 townships in the Yangon area and seven in the delta. It indicated that the balloting would proceed in other areas as scheduled.

Pro-democracy advocates, including the political party of detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, have denounced the constitution as a tool to perpetuate the grip on power of a military that has become increasingly unpopular, if not hated, by many.

Inadequate warnings about the approaching storm and poor reaction by authorities once it struck is expected to further alienate the general population.

The radio said that most of the 22,464 who died, as well as the 41,000 missing, were in the delta region. It said 671 were killed in the Yangon area.

There have been no independent assessments of casualties or damage so far.

Myanmar, largely spared the devastating effects that the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami had on its neighbors, now has acknowledged more fatalities than all but the two most badly hurt countries Indonesia and Sri Lanka from that tragedy.

Only 61 persons died in Myanmar, as compared to 130,00 in Indonesia and 35,000 in Sri Lanka, and Myanmar failed to install warning systems such as were put in place in other affected countries. Disaster experts at the time said Myanmar lacked funding and planned to rely on regional systems.

Images from state television showed large trees and electricity poles sprawled across roads as well as roofless houses ringed by water in the delta, a lacework of paddy fields and canals regarded as Myanmar's rice bowl. Brig. Gen. Kyaw San, the information minister, said tidal waves killed most of the victims in the delta.

The government, criticized for its poor response to the crisis, said it was trying to move in aid and some foreign agencies had managed to send assessment teams, including five from UNICEF.

Richard Horsey, Bangkok-based spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid, said the airport closest to the delta region was located in Yangon.

The biggest problem will be to reach the affected areas. There will be a huge logistical problem," he said.

"For those places accessible by land, there will be cars and trucks from those areas to meet at the halfway point with vehicles from Yangon," he said. "For remote areas, assessment teams and assistance teams will need to go by helicopters and boats."

The delta is riddled with waterways but Horsey said they are not easily accessible, even during normal times.

"The big concern is waterborne diseases. So that's why it's crucial to get safe water in. Then mosquito nets, cooking kits and clothing in the next few days," he said. "Food is not an emergency priority. Water and shelter are."

Mac Pieczowski, who heads the International Organization for Migration office in Yangon, said that with most telephone lines down it was extremely difficult to get information from cyclone-affected areas.

"But from the reports we are getting, entire villages have been flattened and the final death toll may be huge," he said.

The WFP offered a grim assessment of the destruction: up to 1 million people possibly homeless, some villages almost totally destroyed and vast rice-growing areas wiped out.

Based on a satellite map made available by the United Nations, the storm's damage was concentrated over about a 11,600-square-mile (30,000-square-kilometer) area along the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Martaban coastlines less than 5 percent of the country.

But the affected region is home to nearly a quarter of Myanmar's 57 million people.

"Instead of waiting for figures on casualties and damage, it will be practical to send humanitarian aid to victims as soon as possible," Relief and Resettlement Minister Maj. Gen. Maung Maung Swe told a press conference Tuesday.

The appeal came less than a week ahead of the referendum on a military-backed constitution that the junta hoped would go smoothly in its favor, despite opposition from the country's feisty pro-democracy movement. However, the disaster could stir the already tense political situation.

A C-130 military transport plane flew from Bangkok to Yangon on Tuesday, where it unloaded rice, canned fish, water and dried noodles, which were transferred to a helicopter which Myanmar military officers said would ferry the supplies to the most stricken areas.

The aircraft, carrying in the first aid from abroad, returned to Thailand after about an hour on the ground at Yangon international airport.

Other countries and organizations said they were prepared to follow.

The United States, which has slapped economic sanctions on the country, said it likewise stood ready, but that a U.S. disaster team must be invited into the country.

Other countries, from Canada to the Czech Republic and Singapore, reacted quickly to the crisis with pledges of aid. China said it would provide US$1 million (euro0.64 million) to help with disaster relief and rehabilitation.

The European Commission was providing US$3.1 million (euro2 million) in humanitarian aid while the president of neighboring China, Hu Jintao, promised assistance without offering details.

The wife of the U.S. president said her country was ready to pump aid into Myanmar for recovery efforts, but that the ruling junta must accept a U.S. disaster response team.

First lady Laura Bush, who has been the administration's chief voice on human rights and political conditions in Myanmar, faulted the junta for proceeding with the constitutional referendum, and criticized government leaders for not sufficiently warning citizens about the storm.

At least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military cracked down on peaceful protests in September led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates.

The government had apparently taken few efforts to prepare for the storm, which came bearing down on the country from the Bay of Bengal late Friday.

And until Tuesday, few soldiers were seen helping alleviate conditions in Yangon and while state television showed images of a government truck distributing water, residents said they had not seen any around the city. Instead, people stood in long lines to buy water or carried pails of it from monasteries.

Vendors were selling basic commodities, including rice and edible oil, for twice last week's prices.

The biggest problem will be to reach the affected areas. There will be a huge logistical problem," he said.

"For those places accessible by land, there will be cars and trucks from those areas to meet at the halfway point with vehicles from Yangon," he said. "For remote areas, assessment teams and assistance teams will need to go by helicopters and boats."

The delta is riddled with waterways but Horsey said they are not easily accessible, even during normal times.

"The big concern is waterborne diseases. So that's why it's crucial to get safe water in. Then mosquito nets, cooking kits and clothing in the next few days," he said. "Food is not an emergency priority. Water and shelter are."

Mac Pieczowski, who heads the International Organization for Migration office in Yangon, said that with most telephone lines down it was extremely difficult to get information from cyclone-affected areas.

"But from the reports we are getting, entire villages have been flattened and the final death toll may be huge," he said.

The WFP offered a grim assessment of the destruction: up to 1 million people possibly homeless, some villages almost totally destroyed and vast rice-growing areas wiped out.

Based on a satellite map made available by the United Nations, the storm's damage was concentrated over about a 11,600-square-mile (30,000-square-kilometer) area along the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Martaban coastlines less than 5 percent of the country.

But the affected region is home to nearly a quarter of Myanmar's 57 million people.

"Instead of waiting for figures on casualties and damage, it will be practical to send humanitarian aid to victims as soon as possible," Relief and Resettlement Minister Maj. Gen. Maung Maung Swe told a press conference Tuesday.

The appeal came less than a week ahead of the referendum on a military-backed constitution that the junta hoped would go smoothly in its favor, despite opposition from the country's feisty pro-democracy movement. However, the disaster could stir the already tense political situation.

A C-130 military transport plane flew from Bangkok to Yangon on Tuesday, where it unloaded rice, canned fish, water and dried noodles, which were transferred to a helicopter which Myanmar military officers said would ferry the supplies to the most stricken areas.

The aircraft, carrying in the first aid from abroad, returned to Thailand after about an hour on the ground at Yangon international airport.

Other countries and organizations said they were prepared to follow.

The United States, which has slapped economic sanctions on the country, said it likewise stood ready, but that a U.S. disaster team must be invited into the country.

Other countries, from Canada to the Czech Republic and Singapore, reacted quickly to the crisis with pledges of aid. China said it would provide US$1 million (euro0.64 million) to help with disaster relief and rehabilitation.

The European Commission was providing US$3.1 million (euro2 million) in humanitarian aid while the president of neighboring China, Hu Jintao, promised assistance without offering details.

The wife of the U.S. president said her country was ready to pump aid into Myanmar for recovery efforts, but that the ruling junta must accept a U.S. disaster response team.

First lady Laura Bush, who has been the administration's chief voice on human rights and political conditions in Myanmar, faulted the junta for proceeding with the constitutional referendum, and criticized government leaders for not sufficiently warning citizens about the storm.

At least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military cracked down on peaceful protests in September led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates.

The government had apparently taken few efforts to prepare for the storm, which came bearing down on the country from the Bay of Bengal late Friday.

And until Tuesday, few soldiers were seen helping alleviate conditions in Yangon and while state television showed images of a government truck distributing water, residents said they had not seen any around the city. Instead, people stood in long lines to buy water or carried pails of it from monasteries.

Vendors were selling basic commodities, including rice and edible oil, for twice last week's prices.




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