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UN leaders allowed in Burmese delta

May 19, 2008 (AP)‚ Burma’s military regime allowed the UN humanitarian chief into the devastated Irrawaddy delta for a brief tour on Monday, a UN official said, as the government’s dealings with the international community appeared to thaw.

But the United Nations said its foreign staff were still barred from the delta and described conditions there as "terrible," with hundreds of thousands of cyclone victims suffering from hunger, disease and lack of shelter.

John Holmes, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, flew by helicopter to the delta before returning to Burma’s largest city, Rangoon, to meet with international aid agencies, said a UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.

Others, including UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, will also be allowed into the disaster zone this week, officials said, in an apparent effort to deflect criticism that the government is not managing the relief operations properly.

An Asian diplomat said Burma has invited at least three representatives of several countries to tour the delta on Friday. Another diplomat said Burma seems to be opening the door wider. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because the news has not been made public.

The diplomats did not say which countries received invitations.

Ban is to travel to the delta after his scheduled arrival in the country Wednesday, UN spokeswoman Michele Montas said in New York.

Earlier, junta leader senior general Than Shwe had refused to take telephone calls from Ban and had not responded to two letters from him, Montas said. Holmes, who arrived in Rangoon on Sunday, was to deliver a third letter about how the UN can assist the government’s immediate and long-term relief effort.

Amanda Pitt, a UN spokeswoman in Bangkok, said that the world body was seeing "some progress in terms of pipelines starting to come through" but that the aid operation was still unsatisfactory.

"Clearly we’re still not satisfied which is why we keep saying we need to upscale the response. We’re not satisfied with it, nobody is. We can see the situation is terrible," she said.

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