UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today welcomed the Burmese junta's decision to allow "all aid workers" into the country to help cyclone survivors, after weeks of refusing access to foreign relief experts.
Ban's announcement came after a crucial two-hour meeting with junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the country's most powerful figure.
"This agreement can produce results. And the implementation will be the key," Ban said at a news conference after returning to Rangoon, the country's biggest city, from their meeting in Naypyitaw, the capital.
There was no immediate public announcement from Burma's military government confirming the agreement and no indication how quickly it would be implemented.
"I believe they will keep and honour their commitment," Ban said.
A senior UN official present at the meeting said Than Shwe also gave the green light for foreigners to work in the hardest-hit region, the Irrawaddy Delta, which has been virtually off limits to them.
Ban did not say specifically that foreign aid workers would be allowed into the delta, but said he was told they would be given "unhindered access to affected areas" and would be allowed in regardless of nationality.
"He (Than Shwe) has taken a flexible position on that issue," Ban said.
At least 78,000 people were killed when Cyclone Nargis struck May 2-3 and 56,000 are missing. The UN says up to 2.5 million survivors face hunger, homelessness and potential outbreaks of deadly diseases. It estimates that aid has reached only about 25% of them.
Ban said Than Shwe agreed that "international aid could be delivered to Burma via civilian ships and small boats".
The wording of Ban's announcement suggested that US, British and French warships waiting off Burma's coast with relief supplies would not be allowed to dock. It also left open the possibility that other boats could ferry supplies from those ships.
Burma's military government has until now refused to allow an unimpeded influx of foreign aid and experts to reach survivors. While granting an increasing number of visas to foreign staffers, the regime barred all but a handful of them from the delta.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned Friday that hundreds of thousands of people in remote areas of the delta have insufficient food, and said prices for rice, cooking oil and other basics had doubled throughout the country.
Only a "very narrow window of opportunity" remains to provide seeds and other material to farmers before the rice planting season upon which millions depend begins in a few weeks, the agency said. It said that half the cattle and buffaloes in 10 townships surveyed had perished during the storms.
"I had a very good meeting with Senior Gen. Than Shwe and particularly on the aid workers. He has agreed to allow all the aid workers (into Burma), regardless of nationality," Ban said in remarks right after the meeting.
"I urged him that it would be crucially important for him to allow aid workers as swiftly as possible and all these aid relief items also be delivered to the needy people as soon as possible," said the UN chief.
Than Shwe, he said, had also agreed to make Yangon the logistics hub of the aid operation, which Ban called "an important development".
"This is a significant step forward, and could be a turning point in the aid response," said Brian Agland, who heads the US-based aid group CARE in Burma. "We welcome the agreement that has been reached between the UN secretary-general and government authorities in Burma that will facilitate the immediate entry of emergency response experts."
Ban flew to the remote capital of Naypyitaw early Friday and returned later in the day to Yangon, 250 miles (400 kilometres) to the south.
Once back in Yangon, Ban paid a private visit to the mausoleum of former UN Secretary-General U Thant. The Burma-born U Thant, who had the job from 1961-1971, was the last secretary-general to visit the country in 1961.
Ban witnessed some of the cyclone's devastation during a carefully choreographed tour Thursday.
It was not known whether Ban discussed the fate of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose latest period of detention expires on Monday. A string of UN envoys have in the past failed to spring the Nobel Peace Prize laureate from house arrest, confronting a junta that has proved virtually impervious to outside pressure.
The 76-year-old Than Shwe - reclusive, superstitious and known as "the bulldog" for his stubbornness - had refused to answer Ban's calls from New York or to answer two letters sent to him by the secretary-general.
As Ban's visit proceeded, the regime had already appeared to be easing some of its restrictions on foreigners.
France-based Doctors Without Borders said it now had some foreign staffers working in four areas of the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta, which had previously been virtually off limits to non-Burma relief workers.
The regime had earlier given the UN World Food Programme a green light to use 10 helicopters to fly emergency aid to stranded victims.
Ban's first-hand look at the devastation wrought by the storm left the secretary-general shaken, even though the areas to which he was taken were far from the worst-hit.
"I'm very upset by what I've seen," Ban told reporters after a walk through a makeshift relief camp where 500 people huddled in blue tents at Kyondah village in Dedaye township, about 45 miles southwest of Rangoon.
Burma's military regime has been eager to show that it has the relief effort under control, despite spurning the help of foreign disaster experts, and has trotted out officials to give statistics-laden lectures to make the point.
The places Ban visited - the Kyondah Relief Camp and the town of Mawlamyinegyun, an aid distribution point - seemed well-organised.
The destruction in the areas around them was relatively mild however compared with that further southwest in the townships of Labutta and Bogalay. Officials gave no explanation of why Ban was not taken to those areas, where most of dead and missing are reported.
The International Red Cross said rivers and ponds in Bogalay remained full of corpses and many people in remote areas had received no aid.
At the United Nations in New York, France pushed for a UN resolution authorising the delivery of aid to survivors "by all means necessary" if pressure from Ban and Burma's neighbours did not open the aid pipeline quickly.