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Cyclone survivors cut off from aid

Police roadblocks keep workers from reaching victims, and food and supplies pile up at the airport in Myanmar.

May 14, 2008|From the Associated Press

YANGON, MYANMAR — Police barred foreign aid workers from reaching cyclone survivors in hard-hit areas Tuesday, while emergency food shipments backed up at the main airport here.

Relief workers reported that some storm survivors were being given spoiled or poor-quality food rather than nutrition-rich biscuits sent by international donors, adding to fears that the military government in the Southeast Asian country could be misappropriating assistance.

U.N. officials warned that the threat was escalating for the 2 million people facing disease and hunger in areas battered by the storm unless relief efforts were increased dramatically.

Ten days after the tempest, reaching the worst-affected areas was getting more difficult.

Armed police officers set up checkpoints Tuesday on roads leading to the Irrawaddy River delta, and all international aid workers and journalists were turned back by officers who noted their names and passport numbers. Drivers were interrogated.

"No foreigners allowed," one police officer said.

Supplies piled up at Yangon's main airport, which does not have equipment to lift cargo off Boeing 747s. It took 200 Burmese volunteers to unload by hand more than 60 tons of supplies, including school tents, said Dubai Cares, a United Arab Emirates aid group.

With rain falling Tuesday and more predicted for this week, aid officials also said there was not enough warehouse space to protect the supplies, which are beginning to flow in after the regime agreed to accept foreign donations.

Myanmar's state television said the number of confirmed deaths from Tropical Cyclone Nargis had risen by 2,335, to 34,273, and the number of missing stood at 27,838.

The United Nations estimates the actual death toll from the May 2-3 storm could be 62,000 to 100,000.

Some victims and aid workers said that in many cases spoiled or poor-quality food was being given to survivors.

A longtime foreign resident of Yangon said that government officials were complaining that high-energy biscuits rushed in on the World Food Program's first flights were sent to a military warehouse.

Those supplies were exchanged for what the officials described as "tasteless and low-quality" biscuits produced by the Industry Ministry to be handed out to cyclone victims, the resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity because identifying himself could jeopardize his safety.

A spokesman for the military regime would not comment.

U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said that, although Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had expressed concern about food aid being diverted to people who were not cyclone victims, so far there was no evidence of that happening.

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