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Donors press Burma on allowing aid workers

UN leader says progress made

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Seth Mydans
International Herald Tribune / May 26, 2008

BANGKOK - Donor nations, meeting yesterday in Burma, pressed the government to make good on its promise to allow foreign aid workers free access to millions of isolated cyclone survivors.

Leading the one-day meeting of 52 countries, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, said that the government was "moving fast in the right direction" and that he was confident Burma would honor the pledge, made to him Friday by the country's military leader, Senior General Than Shwe.

Ban offered no details, according to international news agencies that were permitted to accompany him in Burma, which has otherwise barred entry to foreign journalists.

"There is good reason to hope that aid to the worst affected areas of Myanmar will increase significantly in the coming days," Ban said. But he insisted that donors would need "unhindered access to the areas hardest hit by the disaster," an access that so far has been denied to most foreigners.

Burma is asking for about $11 billion in reconstruction aid. In the three weeks since Cyclone Nargis struck - leaving at least 134,000 people dead or missing - about 42 percent of the 2.4 million people affected by the storm have received some form of aid, the United Nations said in a new assessment released Saturday. But it said only 23 percent of the 2 million living in the hardest hit areas had been reached by aid.

Relief experts speak of a "second disaster" involving deaths from disease and lack of medical treatment should large-scale aid continue to be delayed.

In the first public comment by the government since the pledge to Ban, Prime Minister Thein Sein appeared to confirm the new policy, saying, "We would warmly welcome any assistance and aid which are provided with genuine good will from any country or organization, provided that there are no strings attached nor politicization involved."

That invitation did not appear to include American, British, and French warships that have been cruising off the Burma coast loaded with supplies, equipment, and small boats.

The official press has stated that no naval vessels would be allowed to deliver supplies. Over the past week, under an agreement with the government, US military aircraft have made 60 landings in Rangoon with relief supplies, but Americans arriving with the deliveries have been confined to the airport. Americans took part in the conference and were among the parties seeking greater access for their aid workers.

At least one UN aid agency, Unicef, said there were signs that its foreign workers, who have been confined like most foreigners to the major city, Rangoon, would be allowed to travel into the hard-hit countryside as early as today.

"We are starting to detect a bit more flexibility, if you will, in terms of the government letting international staff into delta areas," said Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for Unicef, speaking by telephone from Burma.

The prime minister was a little less clear on this point. "We will consider allowing them if they wish to engage in rehabilitation and reconstruction work, township by township," he said.

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