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May 20, 2008

Junta agrees to let neighbours in to help cyclone victims

Myanamar’s military regime agreed Monday to let Southeast Asian neighbours send medical teams and coordinate international aid for its cyclone victims, estimating damage from the disaster at over $10 billion.

"The foreign ministers have agreed to establish an Asean-led coordinating mechanism," George Yeo said after an emergency meeting with his Asean counterparts, including Myanmar's Nyan Win.

The junta has agreed to accept the immediate despatch of medical teams from all the Asean countries," said a statement issued by Yeo after the half-day talks in a Singapore luxury hotel.

The 10-member Asean will work with the United Nations to hold an "international pledging conference" in Myanmar's main city, Yangon, on May 25 to pool together aid for the victims, said the minister, who chairs the meeting.

Singapore convened the Asean ministers more than two weeks after Cyclone Nargis hit southern Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta region, leaving at least 133,000 people dead or missing.

Aid organisations fear many cyclone survivors face food shortages and outbreaks of disease because of the military junta's refusal to let foreign teams distribute relief goods and provide emergency services.

While apparently convincing Myanmar to drop its resistance to large-scale foreign aid, the regional bloc also warned donors that "international assistance given to Myanmar, given through Asean, should not be politicised."

Singapore currently holds the rotating chair of Asean, which has been criticised for its delayed reaction to various regional crises and failure to force Myanmar's ruling generals to respect human rights and promote democracy.

The announcements in Singapore came amid mounting global pressure for the regime to accept major levels of assistance for disaster survivors.

Earlier, the UN's top disaster official, John Holmes, arrived in Myanmar on Sunday carrying a letter to the head of the junta, Than Shwe, from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who plans to visit Myanmar this week.

The United Nations said 2.4 million people were critically short of aid 17 days after the tragedy struck, and relief agencies warned that the most vulnerable survivors will start dying soon unless they get the help they need.

Aid has been pouring in for Myanmar from the international community, but the junta, suspicious of foreign assistance, has been hesitant to allow foreign aid workers into the country.

For the past week, three US Navy transport ships have been waiting in international waters 93 kilometers off the Myanmar coast for an approval from the junta to enter the worst-hit areas in the Irrawaddy delta to provide relief to survivors.

More than two weeks after Myanmar was struck by the devastating cyclone Nargis, only about 30 percent of the immediate aid supply has reached the estimated 2.4 million victims, Malaysian daily New Strait Times said quoting relief agencies whose aid workers have been barred from entering the area.

World Food Programme (WFP) spokesman Marcus Prior said it had organised 14 air cargo shipments into Yangoon and dispatched sufficient food to feed over 250,000 people in the affected areas. However, he admitted it was a slow and insufficient process.

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