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UN steps up aid delivery in battered Myanmar delta
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    YANGON, Myanmar — U.N. helicopters loaded with relief supplies reached areas of Myanmar’s Irrawaddy delta Monday that have been cut off from regular aid since a devastating cyclone five weeks ago, an official said.
    Four of the five aircraft that arrived over the weekend got to work shuttling emergency supplies like rice and water purification systems to villages around the hardest-hit towns of Bogale and Labutta, said Paul Risley, a U.N. World Food Program spokesman.
    A total of four flights flew Monday to seven locations in the delta and six more sites were expected to be reached Tuesday, he said.
    U.N. officials and aid groups have criticized Myanmar’s military regime for restricting access to the delta, saying it has prevented enough food, water and shelter from reaching desperate survivors.
    Foreign relief workers still face hindrances in reaching cyclone victims, especially outside Yangon, the country’s biggest city, aid groups say.
    Until now, the U.N. had only one helicopter operating in Myanmar that flew a total of six trips last week, Risley said. Supplies were mainly being delivered by boats that took several hours to navigate short distances in the delta’s network of waterways.
    ‘‘Today was the first day where you really saw a multiplier effect,’’ Risley said, adding that the helicopters reached four remote villages Monday morning. ‘‘These are areas that clearly have not received regular supplies of food or other relief assistance.’’
    Helicopters are critical to reaching remote villages. They enable aid workers to directly deliver heavy equipment like water purification systems that can supply clean water to entire villages that have been cut off from basic necessities since the cyclone hit May 2-3, he said.
    Four more helicopters chartered by WFP, which are currently in neighboring Bangkok, Thailand, are expected to fly to Myanmar this week. That will bring the U.N. agency’s total number of helicopters in the country to 10, he said.
    The relief effort, however, still faces myriad problems, including a severe shortage of housing materials that could leave hundreds of thousands of survivors exposed to heavy rains as the monsoon season begins, the WFP and other aid agencies say.
    ‘‘There’s clearly a need for tarps and other roofing material, for anything that can help them rebuild their houses,’’ Risley said, noting that rains have left many delta villages knee-deep in mud.
    The U.N. estimates a total of 2.4 million people were affected by Cyclone Nargis and warns that more than 1 million of those still need help, mostly in hard-to-reach spots in the Irrawaddy delta. The cyclone killed more than 78,000 people in the impoverished country.
    On Saturday, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warned there was an ‘‘urgent need’’ for tarpaulins to provide homeless survivors with temporary shelter. Otherwise, it said, the threats of hunger and disease could intensify.
    Myanmar’s military junta has been criticized abroad for allegedly evicting cyclone survivors from refugee camps, supposedly without adequate provisions to survive elsewhere. The government has issued angry denials in state-run media that describe the accusations as lies meant to undermine the country’s stability.
    On Monday, all three state-run newspapers carried bold-faced slogans that urged the people of Myanmar to rally behind the government’s side of the story and not trust what foreign news agencies are reporting.
    ‘‘Storm victims are hereby warned to remain vigilant with nationalistic spirit,’’ the newspapers said.
    A government-affiliated group is also battling rumors that fish from the delta were unfit to eat because they were feeding on human and animal corpses. One rumor circulating was that some fish were found to have human fingers and pieces of jewelry in their stomachs.
    ‘‘This is not true. We can guarantee that,’’ Toe Nandar Tin, an executive member of the Myanmar Fisheries Federation, told the newspaper Myanmar Times. ‘‘(It) is total nonsense. The freshwater fish from delta come from fish farms, not from the rivers.’’
    She said samples of fish were tested to prove they were safe for consumption.

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