First Aid Flights May Reach Myanmar; Death Toll Could Exceed 100,000

May 9, 2008

Myanmar’s (Burma’s) isolationist military regime gave the go-ahead for the first major airlift of international aid into the country Thursday, while dragging its feet on urgently requested visas by foreign agencies several days after a devastating cyclone.

Myanmar’s state media said Cyclone Nargis on Saturday has killed at least 22,980 people and left 42,119 missing, but a top U.S. diplomat said Wednesday that more than 100,000 may have perished.

Four aircraft loaded with critically needed food from the UN World Food Program were set to land at Yangon (Rangoon) airport Thursday morning for rapid delivery to the Irrawaddy delta, where last Saturday’s cyclone wreaked the greatest damage, the agency said.

The flights included about 50 U.S. tons (45 metric tons) of high-energy biscuits. A handful of smaller shipments from neighboring countries already had arrived earlier in the week.

“It is critical that we reach the hungry and homeless in Myanmar with ready-to-eat food as soon as possible to help them survive this horrific disaster,” the UN agency said in a news release from Washington.

As international relief began to trickle in, hungry people swarmed the few open shops and fistfights broke out over food and water in the swamped delta.

Minutes of a UN aid meeting obtained by The Associated Press, meanwhile, revealed that the military junta’s visa restrictions were hampering international relief efforts.

Only a handful of UN aid workers had been let into the impoverished Southeast Asian country, which the government has kept isolated for five decades to maintain its iron-fisted control. The U.S. and other countries rushed supplies to the region, but most of it was being held outside Myanmar while awaiting the junta’s permission to deliver it.

Myanmar’s state television Thursday showed Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Sein distributing food packages to the sick and injured in the delta and soldiers dropping food over villages. The date of the distributions was not given.

Indian navy vessels and planes from Japan, Thailand and Bangladesh had arrived in recent days with medicine, candles, instant noodles, raincoats and other relief supplies, the television said.

Entire villages in the Irrawaddy delta were still submerged from Saturday’s storm, and bloated corpses could be seen stuck in the mangroves. Some survivors stripped clothes off the dead. People wailed as they described the horror of the torrent swept ashore by the cyclone.

“I don’t know what happened to my wife and young children,” said Phan Maung, 55, who held onto a coconut tree until the water level dropped. By then his family was gone.

A spokesman for the UN Children’s Fund said its staff in Myanmar reported seeing many people huddled in roughly built shelters and children who had lost their parents.

“There’s widespread devastation. Buildings and health centers are flattened and bloated dead animals are floating around, which is an alarm for spreading disease. These are massive and horrific scenes,” Patrick McCormick said at UNICEF offices in New York.

American diplomat Shari Villarosa, who heads the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, said the number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because safe food and water were scarce and unsanitary conditions widespread. The situation is “increasingly horrendous,” she said in a telephone call to reporters. “There is a very real risk of disease outbreaks.”

A few shops reopened in the Irrawaddy delta, but they were quickly overwhelmed by desperate people, said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the UN World Food Program in Bangkok, Thailand, quoting his agency’s workers in the area. “Fistfights are breaking out,” he said.

A Yangon resident who returned to the city from the delta area said people were drinking coconut water because there was no safe drinking water. He said many people were on boats using blankets as sails.

Local aid groups distributed rice porridge, which people collected in dirty plastic shopping bags, he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared getting into trouble with authorities for talking to a foreign news agency.

UN officials estimated some 1 million people had been left homeless in Myanmar, which also is known as Burma.

Some aid workers said heavily flooded areas were accessible only by boat, with helicopters unable to find dry spots for landing relief supplies. “Basically the entire lower delta region is under water,” said Richard Horsey, the Thailand-based spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid. “Teams are talking about bodies floating around in the water,” he said. This is “a major, major disaster we’re dealing with.”

International assistance began trickling in Wednesday with the first shipments of medicine, clothing and food. But the junta, which normally restricts access by foreign officials and groups, was slow to give permission for workers to enter.

“Visas are still a problem. It is not clear when it will be sorted out,” said the minutes of a meeting of the UN task force coordinating relief for Myanmar in Bangkok.

McCormick, the UNICEF spokesman, said the agency had 130 people in Myanmar but needed to get more in. “We’re hopeful they will start fast-tracking visas for humanitarian personnel,” he said. “The government clearly weren’t prepared and needs to step up to the plate. We can’t work in a vacuum, and we need the host government to work with us and to eventually take over.”

As they wrangled with Myanmar officials over visas, aid groups struggled to deliver supplies. The “most urgent need is food and water,” said Andrew Kirkwood, head of Save the Children in Yangon. “Many people are getting sick. The whole place is under salt water and there is nothing to drink. They can’t use tablets to purify salt water.”

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