Plea for Burma to let in aid as toll soars

The international community pleaded with Burma’s military rulers on Wednesday to let foreign aid workers and desperately needed relief supplies into the cyclone-crushed country.

 

The United Nations, the United States and France stepped up pressure on the junta to open their doors to foreign aid, as a top US diplomat said the death toll from Cyclone Nargis could top 100 000.

 

Shari Villarosa, the US charge d’affaires in the Burma capital, Rangoon, said “there may well be over 100 000 deaths in the delta area”, citing an international NGO she would not name.

 

“It is an estimate of what deaths may actually reach, primarily in the delta area,” Villarosa told reporters in Washington on a conference call.

 

An estimated 80 000 people have died in the remote district of Labutta in the Irrawaddy Delta, which bore the brunt of the storm’s fury, local military official Tin Win said in Burma.

 

National officials could not be reached to confirm the number, but official state media have put the number of dead and missing at more than 60 000.

 

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the situation as a “critical moment for the people of Burma”.

 

A UN statement said Ban was “very concerned about the continuing tragedy” as Rangoon authorities raised the official death toll to nearly 23 000 late on Wednesday, with state media saying more than 42 000 others were still missing.

 

“Given the magnitude of this disaster, the secretary general urges the government of Burma to respond to the outpouring of international support and solidarity by facilitating the arrival of aid workers, and the clearance of relief supplies in every way possible,” the statement added.

 

Frustrated aid agencies said on Wednesday they were still being denied permission to enter Burma and help desperate survivors of the cyclone, which has left millions homeless and without food and water.

 

A vast swath of Burma’s low-lying delta region was inundated by Cyclone Nargis, which hit on Saturday, sweeping away entire towns.

‘Not a matter of politics’

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted the appeal to Rangoon to admit international disaster relief was not “a matter of politics”.

 

“What remains is for the Burmese government to allow the international community to help its people,” she told reporters. “It’s not a matter of politics. It’s a matter of a humanitarian crisis.”

 

UN humanitarian chief John Holmes warned that Burma was facing a “major catastrophe” and urged the junta to facilitate the arrival of disaster relief teams and the distribution of badly needed emergency supplies.

 

Ban welcomed news that four members of a UN assessment team would be allowed into Burma on Thursday.

 

Holmes said the UN was keen to get disaster relief experts into the country as soon as possible to supplement the work of UN development workers and NGO officials already in Burma.

 

Pledges of cash, supplies and assistance have been pouring in from around the world.

 

Holmes said that despite the delay in getting foreign aid into the country, “we’re moving in the right direction ...
we are making progress”. He noted that a flash appeal to donors for aid to the cyclone victims would be issued on Friday.

 

He rejected charges that the UN had been slow in reacting to the disaster, saying: “It takes time to assess these things.”

 

He also dismissed suggestions that the UN should intervene in Burma even without invitation from the authorities.

 

“I’m not sure that invading them would be a very sensible option at this particular moment. I’m not sure it would be helpful to the people we are actually trying to help,” Holmes said.

 

Meanwhile, France’s UN ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, said he was “very disappointed” after failing to secure a Security Council briefing on the cyclone disaster because of the opposition of some delegations.

 

He said the 15-member council needed to “express its concern and to call on the government of Burma to open its doors” to international relief aid.

 

Ripert said the council held extensive discussions on the disaster on Wednesday in which he pointed out that, as French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner indicated, “it is time for the UN to intervene”.

 

Earlier Kouchner suggested that the Security Council force Burma’s ruling junta to allow aid supplies.—AFP

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