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Myanmar regime eases flow of international aid

It gives out some visas and allows groups to begin work. The U.N. says at least 60,000 are dead or missing.

May 12, 2008|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

BANGKOK, THAILAND — Relief supplies including the first U.S. aid flight dripped into Myanmar today, but the sinking of a Red Cross barge underscored the logistical nightmare of distributing food and shelter to survivors in the swampy aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Nargis.

The United Nations said its teams in the battered Irrawaddy delta region reported between 60,000 and 100,000 people dead or missing, and the Myanmar government increased its official death count to 28,458. Given the scale of the disaster, relief efforts so far have been much too feeble, U.N. officials said, warning that disease and hunger are stalking the 1.5 million survivors.

"Some aid is getting into the country, but the door is not open as wide as it needs to be," U.N. spokesman Richard Horsey said Sunday in Myanmar, where a U.N. cargo plane landed with 33 tons of nonfood relief, including tents. "The government does not have the capacity to respond to this on its own, which is why it is essential that they move urgently not just to allow goods to come in, but also the people and equipment needed to distribute it."

Myanmar's military rulers have so far approved only a handful of visas for foreign aid workers, though relief agencies reported that aid shipments were now receiving clearances with greater ease. The World Food Program also said the government had released 38 tons of high-energy biscuits that had been impounded, and allowed the organization to begin distributing them.

Others saw encouraging signs in the regime's agreement to accept aid from the United States, an offer which had previously been rebuffed. A U.S. military transport plane was cleared today to land with relief supplies in Yangon, carrying water, mosquito nets and blankets. No other flights have been approved, but the U.S. is "hopeful" of landing two more flights this week.

Other aid continued to flow in from the Thai and Indian governments. But U.N. agencies said the most urgent need is for helicopters and boats to transport the aid. The delivery problem is compounded by the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are on the move, seeking shelter and food.

Relief work suffered a terrible setback when a barge being used by the International Committee of the Red Cross to carry supplies to about 1,000 people sank after hitting something.

The barge was one of just two available to the group.

"We can't just land on the tarmac and drop stuff off," Horsey said. "We need boats and helicopters. . . . Not nearly enough is getting through to the people."

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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