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Myanmar survivors emerge desperate for help

by Staff Writers
Labutta, Myanmar (AFP) May 7, 2008
Thousands of shell-shocked survivors of the Myanmar cyclone emerged Wednesday, desperate for food and water after trekking for days through flood waters littered with the bodies of the dead.

An AFP reporter who reached the remote southern delta hardest hit by the storm, which left more than 60,000 dead or missing, said there was virtually no food or fresh water in this ruined town blanketed by the stench of death.

Global pressure continued to mount on Myanmar to open up to foreign aid, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealing to the junta to facilitate the arrival of disaster relief teams and distribution of badly-needed supplies.

UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said Myanmar was facing a "major catastrophe", with the death toll likely to rise, and urged the junta to expedite the process of admitting foreign relief workers.

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy said survivors were in "urgent need" of foreign assistance, but the White House said the secretive generals still had not responded to its offers of help.

Holmes said a World Food Programme plane was expected to arrive in Myanmar early Thursday -- five days after Cyclone Nargis washed away entire villages in one of the world's poorest nations.

In the devastated town of Labutta, witnesses said survivors spent days picking through murky water strewn with the festering and bloated dead, desperate for shelter, food, water and medical care.

"They have lost their families, they have nowhere to stay and they have nothing to eat," one witness told AFP.

Another said: "We can't sleep at night, because we can hear people shouting at night. Maybe these are the ghosts of the villagers."

Witnesses said Saturday's storm, packing winds of 190 kilometres (120 miles) per hour, had left the region submerged under six-metre (20-foot) waters higher than the tree-tops -- and left countless corpses rotting in the tropical heat.

Aid workers for Doctors without Borders reported that the cyclone had destroyed 80 percent of buildings in the worst-hit parts of Myanmar.

After days of criticism aimed at the generals who have ruled the former Burma for nearly half a century -- and who have hesitated to let in foreign relief workers -- aid began moving into the country more quickly.

Apart from the WFP plane, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said another flight would leave at the end of the week from southern Italy, with 25 tonnes aid and several staff on board.

OCHA said the WFP had already been able to distribute some food aid in Yangon, and aid has also arrived from Thailand and China.

But the UN refugee agency said 22 tonnes of supplies were stuck at the border with Thailand, awaiting approval to enter Myanmar from the junta.

The military, best known internationally for its long detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, had insisted that experts well versed in coping with catastrophes around the globe would not be automatically allowed in.

But after criticism of a government that declined help from abroad after the 2004 Asian tsunami, and bitter complaints that time was running out for those still alive, the generals seemed to be slowly relenting.

"We're moving in the right direction... we are making progress," Holmes told reporters at UN headquarters in New York, welcoming the appointment of a cabinet-level minister to handle visa requests from aid organisations.

White House spokesman Dana Perino told reporters: "We are increasingly concerned about the desperate situation that many people are facing there after the cyclone and we stand ready to help."

Meanwhile, Chinese President Hu Jintao, on a rare visit to Tokyo, said the cyclone in close ally Myanmar may set back the already slow-moving democratisation process, according to a Japanese official.

One local doctor warned that many were suffering from diarrhoea because of the miserable sanitary conditions, saying: "We need emergency rescuers."

Residents told AFP that the regime -- which controls all media and stifles the merest whiff of dissent -- had not yet set up emergency shelters here, and that even a government rescue ship was stranded after running out of fuel.

"Assistance hasn't reached them yet and they are dying," said Andrew Kirkwood of Save the Children, one of the few aid agencies allowed to operate inside Myanmar.

"And clearly there are millions of homeless," he said. "But how many millions, we don't know."

The charity said an estimated 40 percent of the dead or missing are believed to be children.

In New York, Ban described the situation as a "critical moment for the people of Myanmar." Holmes said a flash appeal to donors for aid to the cyclone victims would be issued on Friday.


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Rice says Myanmar crisis 'not a matter of politics'
Washington (AFP) May 7, 2008
US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice on Wednesday urged cyclone-hit Myanmar to admit international disaster relief, saying it was a humanitarian crisis rather than a political issue.

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