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UN warns of ‘second catastrophe’ in Burma

May 13, 2008 (AFP)‚ The United Nations warned Tuesday that Burma faced a "second catastrophe" after its devastating cyclone, unless the junta immediately allows massive air and sea deliveries of aid.

But Burma’s military rulers again rejected growing international pressure to open the door to a foreign-run relief effort, insisting against all the evidence that they could handle the emergency alone.

The United Nations aired its "increasing frustration" at not being able to bring more help to 1.5 million of the neediest survivors, and said the crisis in the country’s remote, flooded south posed an "enormous logistic challenge."

It requires "at least an air or sea corridor to channel aid in large quantities as quickly as possible," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman in Geneva for the UN’s emergency relief arm.

"We fear a second catastrophe."

But the junta said on Tuesday that the needs of the people after the storm, which has left around 62,000 dead or missing since ripping through the southern Irrawaddy delta on 3 May, "have been fulfilled to an extent".

"The nation does not need skilled relief workers yet," Vice Admiral Soe Thein said in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a mouthpiece for the military, which has ruled the nation with an iron grip for nearly half a century.

Although aid flights are increasing, there are serious bottlenecks in getting supplies to the delta.

Many survivors said they had still not received help from the government 10 days after the disaster, and could not understand why their leaders have snubbed offers of help that have poured in from around the world.

Aid agencies warn that as every day passes without sufficient food, water and shelter, more are at risk of joining the staggering death toll, estimated by the UN at 100,000.

The World Health Organisation said it had dispatched supplies of body bags, as experts warned that corpses were going uncollected and that the putrefying remains pose a major health risk.

Heavy rains overnight deepened the misery for many, seeping through the flimsy plastic sheeting of makeshift shelters of tens of thousands of people whose homes were sunk or blown away in the storm.

"These new rains are bringing us more misery," said Taye Win, a survivor sheltering at a monastery outside the country’s main city Rangoon. "I don’t know how long we can withstand this."

The UN said child traffickers are targeting the youngest and most vulnerable survivors of the catastrophe, and that two suspects have already been arrested after trying to recruit children at a relief camp.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon took aim at the regime, using unusually strong language to insist that outside experts be allowed in immediately to help direct the fumbling relief effort.

"We are at a critical point. Unless more aid gets into the country very quickly, we face an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dwarf today’s current crisis," he said.

"I therefore call in the most strenuous terms on the government of Myanmar to put its people’s lives first. It must do all it can to prevent this disaster from becoming even more serious."

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also blasted the junta, saying its "callous disregard" for its people was hampering the supply of aid.

European Union development ministers held emergency talks Tuesday to seek ways to convince the junta to open its doors.

After the meeting, they urged "the authorities in Burma to offer free and unfettered access to international humanitarian experts, including the expeditious delivery of visa and travel permits".

The bloc’s aid chief Louis Michel said the Burmese regime has granted him a visa and that he would leave later on Tuesday for the country, where he is expected to stress that no political strings are attached to foreign aid.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States had no plans for a forced intervention in Burma to provide aid to cyclone victims.

"We are doing everything that we can because this is a humanitarian, not a political issue. We want to make very clear that our only desire is to help the people of Burma," she said.

Burma’s generals remain deeply suspicious of the outside world and fearful of any foreign influence which could weaken their control on every aspect of life in this poor and isolated nation.


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