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Myanmar seizes UN aid supplies, not ready to let in US
Myanmar Cyc 5606908
Myanmar residents walk past houses destroyed by Cyclone Nargis in Bogalay, Myanmar, on Friday May 9, 2008. The U.N. blasted Myanmar's military government Friday, saying its refusal to let in foreign aid workers to help victims of the devastating cyclone was "unprecedented" in the history of humanitarian work. - photo by Associated Press
    YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar’s military leaders seized aid shipments headed for cyclone survivors and told the top U.S. diplomat there Friday that they’re not ready to let in American aid workers despite warnings the country is on the verge of a medical catastrophe.
    Another 4 inches of rain was forecast to fall next week as more than 1 million people waited for food, clean water, shelter and medicine to reach them. Diplomats and aid groups warned the number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because of illnesses and said thousands of children may have been orphaned.
    The U.N. World Food Program said two planeloads of supplies containing enough high-energy biscuits to feed 95,000 people were seized Friday, prompting the world body to say it was suspending aid flights.
    Later, WFP chief spokeswoman Nancy Roman said the flights would resume on Saturday while negotiations continued for the release of the supplies.
    Myanmar’s government acknowledged taking control of the shipments and said it plans to distribute the aid itself to the affected areas.
    In a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press, government spokesman Ye Htut said the junta had clearly stated what it would do and denied the action amounted to a seizure.
    The WFP’s regional director, Tony Banbury, directly appealed to Myanmar’s military leaders in an interview with Associated Press Television News.
    ‘‘Please, this food is going to people who need it very much. You and I, we have the same interests,’’ Banbury said. ‘‘Please release it.’’
    Shari Villarosa, the U.S. charge d’affairs in Yangon, said she met with Myanmar Deputy Foreign Minister Kyaw Thu on Friday to discuss American relief operations.
    Myanmar says it will accept aid from all countries, but prohibits the entry of foreign workers who would deliver and manage the operations. The junta is not ready to change that position, Villarosa was told.
    But Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, has agreed to allow a single U.S. cargo aircraft to bring in relief supplies on Monday, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stuart Upton said Friday.
    More than 60,000 people are dead or missing and entire villages are submerged in the Irrawaddy delta after Saturday’s cyclone. Many of the survivors waiting for food, clean water and medicine were crammed into Buddhist monasteries or camped outdoors.
    The U.N. estimates 1.5 million people have been severely affected and has voiced concern about the disposal of dead bodies.
    ‘‘Many are not buried and lie in the water. They have started rotting and the stench is beyond words,’’ Anders Ladekarl, head of the Danish Red Cross.
    About 20,000 body bags were being sent so volunteers from the Myanmar chapter of the Red Cross can start collecting bodies, he said.
    The U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization said its models forecast three days of strong rain next week that could dump 4 inches in Myanmar beginning Thursday or Friday.
    Heavy rain could worsen the situation in the storm-affected coastal region, the meteorological agency said, though it cautioned that forecasts beyond five days could change.
    In the village of Kongyangon, someone had written in Burmese, ‘‘We are all in trouble. Please come help us’’ on black asphalt, a video from the Norway-based opposition news network, the Democratic Voice of Burma, showed. A few feet away was another plea: ‘‘We’re hungry.’’
    In Yangon, the price of increasingly scarce water has shot up by more than 500 percent, and rice and oil jumped by 60 percent over the last three days, the Danish Red Cross said.
    The U.N. has grown increasingly critical of Myanmar’s refusal to let in foreign aid workers who could assess the extent of the disaster with the junta apparently overwhelmed. None of the 10 visa applications submitted by the WFP has been approved.
    The U.N. always requires experienced aid workers to accompany relief supplies in every recipient country until they are delivered, officials said.
    ‘‘Those are the rules,’’ said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. ‘‘We have to be accountable to our donors in the states that paid for this assistance and we have to be transparent. We have to be sure the aid is reaching the victims.’’
    The junta said in a statement Friday it was grateful to the international community for its assistance but the best way to help was just to send in material rather than personnel.
    Andrew Brookes, an aerospace specialist at the IISS, an independent think tank, said Myanmar has about 15 transport planes but most are small jets not adequate to carry hundreds of tons of supplies. The country has fewer than 40 helicopters and only a fraction may be operational, he said.
    ‘‘The Military Balance 2008,’’ a widely recognized assessment on armaments around the world, puts the number of helicopters at 66.
    ‘‘Even if they were all serviceable it’s not even a drop in the ocean. The task is so awesome it would phase even a sophisticated force like the British, French or Germans,’’ Brookes said.
    Relief workers have reached 220,000 cyclone victims, only a small fraction of the number of people affected, the Red Cross said Friday.
    ‘‘Believe me, the government will not allow outsiders to go into the devastated area,’’ said Yangon food shop owner Joseph Kyaw.
    ‘‘The government only cares about its own stability. They don’t care about the plight of the people,’’ he said.
    Three Red Cross aid flights loaded with shelter kits and other emergency supplies landed in Myanmar Friday without incident.
    According to state media, 23,335 people died and 37,019 are missing from Cyclone Nargis.
    Grim assessments were made about what lies ahead. The aid group Action Against Hunger noted that the delta region is known as the country’s granary, and the cyclone hit before the harvest.
    ‘‘If the harvest has been destroyed this will have a devastating impact on food security in Myanmar,’’ the group said.
    The U.N. was putting together an urgent appeal to fund aid efforts over the next six months. The International Organization for Migration says it is asking for $8 million as part of the appeal. The U.N. refugee agency says it needs $6 million to fund the immediate shelter and household needs of 250,000 people.

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