Thursday, May 8, 2008 CBC News
The first United Nations relief flights landed in Burma on Thursday, while American military planes stocked with aid waited for clearance from the Burmese government to land in the flood-ravaged country.
Two UN flights loaded with items including high-energy biscuits and medical kits arrived in Burma Thursday, according to a UN official who requested anonymity. They were part of the first major international airlift of aid to the survivors of Saturday's cyclone, which a U.S. diplomat has said may have killed more than 100,000 people.
The official said two more flights were expected to land in Burma, also known as Myanmar, later in the day but didn't provide details. It has taken more than two days for officials to negotiate with Burma's ruling military junta to allow relief planes to enter the southeast Asian country.
"It is enough of a challenge that visas are being held up for bringing in experienced international relief workers, but it is specially frustrating that critically needed food aid is being held up," a spokesman for the UN's World Food Program, Paul Risley, said earlier Thursday.
U.S. relief flights awaiting permission
In another development, the United States ambassador in Thailand said his government has not received permission to deploy U.S. air force C-130 relief flights to Burma, despite conflicting reports that the military junta had allowed entry.
The U.S. military has three planes, as well as humanitarian supplies and equipment, in place in Thailand while a fourth flight stocked with aid cargo was on the way there Thursday, air force spokeswoman Megan Orton said at the Pentagon.
The U.S. navy also has three ships in the Gulf of Thailand ready to help with relief efforts, including an amphibious assault ship with 23 helicopters aboard.
Cyclone Nargis killed at least 22,980 people, according to the latest death toll published by state media Thursday, while more than 42,119 people are missing. The UN estimates about 1 million people were rendered homeless by the storm.
UN officials have warned that delays in issuing visas to relief workers are hampering aid efforts, and that the country could face an even worse humanitarian crisis and higher death toll if vital supplies, including food and water-purification tablets, are not provided quickly to survivors.
Between 30 and 40 visas requested by the UN and other aid organization are still sitting with the Burmese government, UN spokesman Richard Horsey said in Bangkok.
"These are mostly people who have key experience in handling disasters of this scale, and so they can bring lessons from other similar disasters," he said. "The agencies are becoming frustrated."
The Association of Southeast Nations is urging the international community to continue shipping aid to Thailand despite the delays.
"Please keep the help coming, keep the contributions coming, and if you have to, go to Thailand, park there and wait for redistribution from there," ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said Thursday.
More than 700 tonnes of food aid has already arrived in Rangoon. Indian navy vessels and planes from Japan, Thailand, Singapore and Laos and Bangladesh have delivered medicine, candles, instant noodles, raincoats and other relief supplies, according to Burmese state television.
Burma has also accepted aid from traditional allies such as India and China, which stepped forward Thursday to urge the junta to accept assistance from other countries.
"We hope Myanmar will co-operate with the international community, will have consultation with the international community, and we hope Myanmar will overcome the disaster at an early date," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.
He said China would give $4.3 million US in aid in addition to its initial pledge of $1 million US. Britain has offered about $9.8 million to help the crisis, and the U.S. offered more than $3 million in aid, while Canada has pledged $2 million.
Relief teams and aid material are waiting to be brought in from Thailand, Singapore, Italy, France, Sweden, Britain, South Korea, Australia, Israel, U.S., Poland and Japan, according to minutes from a UN relief meeting in Geneva that were obtained by the Associated Press.
Need to ensure delivery
However, some organizations have refused to simply drop the supplies into the waiting hands of the military junta, who have ruled the country since 1962.
"We will not just bring our supplies to an airport, dump it and take off," WFP's regional director Anthony Banbury told AP Television News. "This is one reason why there is a holdup now, because we are going to bring in not just supplies but a lot of capacity to go with them to make sure the supplies get to the people."
Villages in the Irrawaddy Delta, one of worst hit areas, remained submerged Thursday while bloated corpses bobbed inside the coastal mangroves, according to reports.
The head of the United States Embassy in Rangoon, Shari Villarosa, said Wednesday she had received information indicating "there may well be over 100,000 deaths in the delta area," where she said 95 per cent of the buildings had been destroyed.
At least 40 per cent of people killed by the cyclone and its aftermath were children, an official with Save the Children told CBC News. He said the organization is desperately trying to get food and water into the worst-affected regions of Burma.
"It's now been 5½ days since the cyclone hit and we think that some people still have not received any assistance," Andrew Kirkwood said Thursday in a telephone interview from Rangoon. "Well, I think everybody is extremely worried about the current situation."
He said Save the Children had already provided assistance to about 60,000 people in the Rangoon area, distributing food and shelter items, water purification tablets and even cash so survivors can buy food and medicine at local markets.
However, some villagers around the capital city complained that they were depending on Buddhist monasteries to provide relief.
"The government is not helping us. No aid is coming. There is no money, no rice," said Mu Sanda, one of about 50 people huddled in a monastery dining room that has been converted into an evacuation centre in Kyauktan, 25 kilometres southeast of Rangoon.