Myanmar cyclone: Regime blocks aid flights

11:39, 08 May 2008
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There may well be over 100,000 deaths in the area

Planes carrying tons of emergency aid are still being stopped from entering Burma (known as Myanmar by its military junta), UN officials have claimed, according to Telegraph.

The military regime has still not given them permission to land, almost a week after Cyclone Nargis devastated the country with 120mph winds.

Criticism of the junta rose as the US warned more than 100,000 people could have died as a result of the storm.

As survivors battled to stay alive with little relief in sight five days after Cyclone Nargis struck, the US embassy in Rangoon issued a new estimate of the scale of the human cost in the disaster.

"The information that we`re receiving indicates that there may well be over 100,000 deaths in the delta area," said Shari Villarosa, the US charge d`affaires.

The regime has said that Nargis claimed at least 22,000 lives and left another 40,000 missing, presumed dead. Yet it has yet to prove fully co-operative with the international community and aid agencies desperate to help.

International relief supplies began to trickle into the country on Wednesday, but the regime has not yet begun issuing visas to emergency relief specialists who aid agencies say are essential in running a massive logistical operation in a wrecked landscape.

Thousands of tonnes of supplies still wait in depots abroad, unable to enter the country and help residents of the worst-hit towns and villagers.

And a UN official based in Bangkok, Thailand, said on Thursday that World Food Programme planes carrying nearly 45 tons of high-energy biscuits were still stuck in Dhaka, in Bangladesh, and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, because they had not been given permission to land. Trucks carrying aid are also stuck in neighbouring countries.

The UN is hoping a four-man assessment team will be allowed to start work in Burma later today.

Western countries have become increasingly critical of Burma for not allowing aid and agency workers in quickly.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, said on Wednesday night: "It should be a simple matter. It`s not a matter of politics. It`s a matter of a humanitarian crisis."

Meanwhile, a group of British aid agencies and charities yesterday launched an "urgent" appeal for help and a TV advert asking for donations will be broadcast today.

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) said the scale of the disaster meant the need for aid was "immediate and vast".

Saturday`s cyclone flattened many coastal communities in the Irawaddy delta, a combination of hurrican-force winds and a 12 foot tidal surge overwhelming settlements.

At Kungyangon, a devastated town where 2,000 bodies have been buried, survivors provided horrifying accounts of the disaster and its wake.

A community leader warned of the growing threat to the health of those who five days ago escaped Cyclone Nargis.

"If we don`t get help we will die here," he told The Daily Telegraph, asking not to reveal his name for fear of offending the military regime.

"Already diarrhoea is beginning. Most of the people have diarrhoea. We need good food and shelter to survive."

"They have been buried in whatever scraps of dry ground can be found, often two or three bodies to a single grave. The bodies of hundreds of people, missing presumed dead, have not been found."

All the food in one neighbourhood was destroyed as the area, near to the worst-hit Irrawaddy Delta, was engulfed with water. On 19 streets not one house survived unscathed. Most are shattered wrecks. A few remain more or less intact but just as many have disappeared entirely.

The bodies of dead people have been removed here, but the bloated corpses of buffalo are still trapped in the debris nearby, threatening to poison the water supply.

In another town, Labutta, which has virtually no food or fresh water, the flood waters have begun to recede, revealing rotting, bloated bodies, both human and animal, which have left a stench hanging over the town.

A distraught elderly woman in Kungyangon, lost 18 relatives who lived in a nearby coastal village.

Only three children at boarding school survived. "The whole village was destroyed," she wailed as she pawed at their photographs and wept inconsolably.

Her house quickly filled up with neighbours, each desperate to tell their own appalling story, many of them reminiscent of the horrifying scenes witnessed on coastlines across the Indian Ocean in the 2004 tsunami.

A young man lost five siblings when their boat was swept away. A father had his infant son torn from arms as he and his wife fled their collapsing home.

Two days later he found the body 300 yards away. Now he is fixed on survival.

"When I have rice I fill my stomach," he said. "When I have noting to eat I go to the mango trees and eat the fruit scattered on the ground."

Above the clamour of people trying to give their accounts, the distraught old woman asserted herself. "I will tell the story," she said and everyone fell briefly silent.

"At first when it was very windy people started to run," she said. "They were clinging to trees. Around four in the morning people started to drown."

The settlement was trapped between a raging river and a torrent of water coming from the seaward side. Inside the houses it reached six feet deep. It was salt water, and destroyed all the rice in five rice mills here."

Desperation has driven some to crime. The home of a relatively wealthy man in Kungyangon was surrounded by men with swords intent on robbery until neighbours intervened to save him.

"More than £100 was stolen from my house," said a young woman. "Most of the shops have been robbed by hungry people."

The crime wave ended when the army finally arrived in Kungyangon on Tuesday, offering chlorinated water and a kilogram of rice per family. On Wednesday morning residents were also given fish.

It is all many of them have to eat, but they are unimpressed. "They talk with a big mouth about the water they are giving but it is not enough," said one man. "The rice is not enough."

The army presence in the town increased considerably on Wednesday, with more than a dozen dark green trucks parked on the main road.

The soldiers were most visible standing along the roadside , a few of them hacking away at the fallen trees.

But local people cleared the road days ago. It was also local people who cleared away the bodies, and who are accommodating their homeless neighbours as best they can. "People are helping each other," one man said.

Sir John Holmes, the UN`s Humanitarian Affairs chief, said the organisation had applied for 100 visas but had only received a handful from the Burmese regime.

He said the international relief effort was "slower than ideal" but cooperation from the junta was "going in the right direction."

International agencies hope to be able to mount a "flash appeal" detailing the precise needs of those affected on Friday.

How you can donate:

A number of charities have launched appeals to help the Burmese in the wake of this weekend`s cyclone. You can donate online to the British Red Cross, www.redcross.org.uk (£5 will provide water purification tablets for 60 people), to Oxfam`s emergency fund, www.oxfam.co.uk, to Christian Aid, www.christianaid.org.uk, and Save the Children, www.savethechildren.org.uk

By Graeme Jenkins and Stephen Adams, Telegraph

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