Junta still to approve aid for Burma cyclone victims

UN and private aid agencies today raced to prepare aid for victims of the devastating cyclone in Burma, but were awaiting a go-ahead from the ruling junta.

In Burma, local media said nearly 4,000 people died, but the foreign minister, Nyan Win, predicted that the death toll could reach more than 10,000.

Government officials indicated willingness to accept aid, but details about how the aid is to be delivered need to be worked out first, said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA.

“The UN team has been activated and is ready to supplement the effort of the government in responding to this disaster as soon as they receive visas,” Byrs said.

Some potential donors said they appeared to need individual approval to deliver aid.

The US said the Burmese government had initially refused to allow a US Disaster Assistance Response Team into the country to assess damage to follow up on an emergency contribution of $250,000.

“As of this moment, the Burmese government has not given them permission, however, to go into the country, so that is a barrier to us being able to move forward,” deputy US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said. “We asked for permission but the initial response from the government was that they were not inclined to let them in.”

Relief agency representatives met in Rangoon, Burma’s biggest city, and the regional coordination centre in Bangkok, Thailand, to assess the damage and prepare supplies.

A UN official in Burma said hundreds of thousands of people urgently needed drinking water and shelter. The International Red Cross said the national Red Cross society was already distributing supplies.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “very saddened” and “very much alarmed” at the rising casualties as a result of the cyclone and told reporters at UN headquarters in New York that the “United Nations is very much committed to actively assisting Myanmese people”.

“Because of the lack of communications and information, we are not quite sure what would be the total extent of damages and casualties,” he said.

Ban said he had mobilised a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team and that his chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, was meeting Burma’s UN Ambassador Kyaw Tint Swe tonight “to find out what we can do”.

Sweden’s former integration minister Jens Orback, who was in Rangoon when the storm hit, said: “Trees fell down, roofs blew off, electricity went out, and people could not go outside.

“We were out in the suburbs and houses were pretty much blown away there,” he said today.

Michael Annear, regional disaster management coordinator for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said: “Widespread destruction is obviously making it more difficult to get aid to people who need it most.”

Care operations manager Carsten Voelz said in Geneva: “We have received a long list of things that are needed, including shelter material, food, water purification stuff, tarpaulins and things like that. Given the scale of what has happened, we would certainly have to beef up our personnel that are in the country.”

The United Nations Children’s Fund said it was working with other agencies and the Burmese Red Cross Society to see how it could help those affected.

“We have five teams assessing the situation on the ground at the moment,” said Unicef spokeswoman Veronique Taveau. “The situation seems to be quite difficult.”

Aid agencies usually need a government request for international assistance before dispatching staff and supplies to disaster-hit countries.

The EU said it was providing €2m in urgent humanitarian aid for the cyclone victims.

Agencies outside Burma are awaiting word from representatives in the country who have been meeting officials, but communications are difficult with limited phone connections.

Rangoon is mostly without electricity. Many roads remain littered with debris.

“It’s clear that we’re dealing with a very serious situation,” said Richard Horsey, a Thailand-based spokesman for OCHA.

“What is clear at this point is that there are several hundred thousands of people in dire need of shelter and clean drinking water.”

At a meeting with foreign diplomats and representatives of international aid agencies, Burmese Foreign Ministry officials said they welcomed international humanitarian assistance and urgently needed roofing materials, plastic sheets and temporary tents, medicine, water purifying tablets, blankets and mosquito nets.

The situation in the countryside remained unclear because of poor communications and roads left impassable by the storm.

The international Red Cross said it was preparing support and funding for the national Red Cross society carrying out the relief work.

Matthew Cochrane, speaking at the federation’s Geneva headquarters, said: “Reports are coming out of the delta coast, particularly the Irrawaddy region, that in some villages up to 95% of houses have been destroyed,”

Other agencies taking part in preparations include Save the Children, Oxfam and World Vision.

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