UN agency suspends Burma flights after seizure

The United Nations food agency suspended aid flights to cyclone-struck Burma on Friday after the military government seized two deliveries at Rangoon airport, apparently determined to distribute supplies on its own.

The shipments of 38 tonnes of high-energy biscuits, enough to feed 95 000 people, were intended to be loaded on trucks and sent to the inundated Irrawaddy Delta, where most of the estimated 1,5-million victims need help.

“We’re going to have to shut down our very small airlift operation until we get guarantees from the authorities that we’ll be able to have the food when it arrives,” UN World Food Programme (WFP) regional director Tony Banbury told CNN.

“I am furious. It is unacceptable.”

Governments around the world have been pressing Burma’s ruling generals to open the country’s borders to desperately needed assistance and on Friday, Germany said it agreed with a proposal by France to use the UN Security Council.

The official death toll remains at nearly 23 000, with 42 119 people missing. Experts fear it could be as high as 100 000 in what is the worst cyclone to hit Asia since 1991, when 143 000 people were killed in Bangladesh.

The Burma government has stated its preference through the state-run media that it would accept “relief in cash and kind” but not foreign aid workers.

“It should be on trucks headed to the victims.
You’ve seen the conditions they are in. That food is now sitting on a tarmac doing no good,” Banbury said.

Planes loaded with food and equipment from several Asian countries have landed in Rangoon in the past few days, as have two flights with supplies from the WFP.

“Burma is not in a position to receive rescue and information teams from foreign countries at the moment,” a Foreign Ministry statement published in state-run newspapers said. “But at present Burma is giving priority to receiving relief aid and distributing it to the storm-hit regions with its own resources.”

Impasse

In another sign of the impasse between the military rulers and countries eager to kickstart a major international relief operation, the prime minister of neighbouring Thailand cancelled a planned trip there this weekend.

“After they said today [Friday] they would not welcome foreign staff, there is no point of me going there,” said Samak Sundaravej, who had been urged by the United States and Britain to try and open the doors.

With saltwater ruining wells, grain stores and rice fields, the relief task ahead will be enormous. The UN estimates at least 1,5-million people out of a population of 53-million are “severely affected”—needing food and shelter.

Survivors have been mostly fending for themselves in the swampy delta after Cyclone Nargis packing winds of up to 190km/h last Saturday whipped up a massive wall of sea-water that hurtled through the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta.

Children were the most vulnerable when the storm struck the delta, known as “Asia’s rice bowl” in British colonial times.

Unicef the UN children’s fund, which has staff in Burma, was using commercial flights to send in supplies.—Reuters

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