Clarify rules on foreign aid workers, junta told

Foreign aid agencies urged Burma's junta today urgently to clarify rules for operating in the country's cyclone-devastated areas, after the regime promised to open its doors to the international community.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated that Burma's ruling generals had told him "all international aid workers will be able to freely reach the needy people," a pledge the junta has not publicly acknowledged.

Mr Ban made the comments during an afternoon trip to China's earthquake zone before heading to Bangkok, Thailand.

The junta's apparent concession came on Friday after three weeks of blocking relief for cyclone survivors, and on the eve of an international donors' conference Sunday in Burma.

"I want to be optimistic, but I'm sceptical," Lionel Rosenblatt, president emeritus of US-based Refugees International said, voicing comments echoed by relief agencies worldwide.

"My overall impression is scepticism and what this actually means. The devil is going to be in the implementation."

The possible breakthrough distracted attention from the junta's widely criticised decision to push ahead today with a constitutional referendum in Rangoon, Burma's largest city, and hard-hit areas of the Irrawaddy River delta.

Critics have said that the proposed charter is designed to strengthen the military's grip on power, and that they had urged the government to focus on relief efforts.

Many viewed today's voting as a pointless exercise. The rest of the country voted on May 10, and state radio has said the delayed balloting could not reverse the constitution's reported approval by 92.4% of the 22 million eligible voters.

Detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi cast her ballot on Friday evening when referendum officials visited her Rangoon home with a ballot card, an official said. Ms Suu Kyi's opposition party called for a "No" vote on the proposed charter, which effectively bars her from holding elected office.

Ms Suu Kyi's home was damaged during the May 2-3 cyclone, which hit the Irrawaddy delta, Burma's key rice-producing region in the south-west.

The xenophobic junta has kept the delta virtually off-limits to foreign aid workers, who have been barred from travelling outside Rangoon.

The push to get aid workers into the delta is increasingly urgent because an estimated 2.5 million people remain in severe need, threatened by disease, hunger and exposure due to the loss of their homes.

"It is a race against time to get aid to the people who desperately need it," Oxfam said in a statement, adding it "cautiously welcomed" the junta's new willingness to accept foreign experts but was waiting to see "genuine efforts to relieve the suffering on the ground".

Aid agencies said that much needs to be clarified from Mr Ban's meeting, ranging from logistical issues about when aid workers' visas will be granted to how long they will be allowed to stay in Burma and where they can work.

"We're hopeful that it means more foreign aid workers will go to the worst-affected areas," said Save the Children spokeswoman Kate Conradt. "We already have a number of expatriate staff in Yangon. They just can't leave the city."

The US-based International Rescue Committee said in a statement it is "still seeking clarity" and hoped aid workers will truly have "unhindered access to deliver aid".

Official estimates put the death toll at about 78,000, with another 56,000 missing.

Under intense international pressure - and with an aid donors' meeting scheduled for Sunday - Senior General Than Shwe told the UN chief he would allow aid workers into the affected area "regardless of nationality", Mr Ban said on Friday.

General Than Shwe refused to relent on the landing of military ships, however.

According to Mr Ban, General Than Shwe "agreed that international aid could be delivered to Burma via civilian ships and small boats".

The US, Britain and France all have warships off Burma's coast ready to help, but they have not been given approval to go ashore or send helicopters to bring aid to the most remote and desperate areas. Burma's junta is nervous about any shore landings because it fears an invasion or political interference.

Mr Ban flew to Chengdu in China today to inspect the damage from the May 12 earthquake there.

Mr Ban was scheduled to fly to Bangkok later today to join Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej in opening a staging centre for cyclone relief supplies at the city's Don Muang airport.

The UN chief was expected to return to Rangoon on Sunday to co-chair the donors conference, which would be attended by officials from more than 45 countries and regional organisations, UN deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said in New York.

The conference is being sponsored by the UN and the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is taking the lead in organising the delivery of aid to Myanmar, one of its members.

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