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May 9, 2008

UN officials call on junta to postpone referendum

Top UN officials criticised Myanmar's response to a devastating cyclone, calling on its ruling junta Thursday to postpone a constitutional referendum and to ease restrictions slowing the delivery of international aid.

The UN now estimates 1.5 million people have been "severely affected" by the cyclone that hit last Saturday. Those include 1 million homeless, at least 42,000 missing and more than 22,000 killed in high winds, floods and tidal waves.

"If we lose time at this critical time, not only will many more people die because of this crisis, I'm also concerned disease will spread," Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said before a luncheon in Atlanta with Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Ban called on Myanmar's military leaders to postpone a constitutional referendum and "focus instead on mobilizing all available resources and capacity for the emergency response efforts" because of the scope of the disaster, UN deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said at New York headquarters.

In a CNN interview, Ban said he was "deeply concerned again by the inflexible positions of Myanmar's government."

Ban also told reporters the military regime should temporarily abandon visa requirements for aid workers trying to enter the country so that badly needed food and supplies can reach victims without delay.

He said he was trying to arrange talks with Myanmar junta chairman Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

The junta has postponed voting in some parts of the country, including its largest city, Yangon, some outlying areas and parts of the Irrawaddy delta hardest hit by the storm.

While four relief flights from the UN World Food Program arrived in Yangon on Thursday carrying high-energy biscuits and other supplies, John Holmes, the UN's top humanitarian official, said the "frustrations have been growing that this humanitarian response is being held back because of difficulties of access."

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