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May 27, 2008

UN chief ends Myanmar mission

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon headed back to New York on Monday, saying he hoped Myanmar's military regime would honor its promise to open up cyclone-devastated areas of the country to foreign aid workers.

Ban's mission to knock down Myanmar's barriers to international cyclone assistance climaxed Sunday when donor nations offered more than $100 million to help the country recover from Cyclone Nargis.

But they warned the ruling generals they will not fully open their wallets until they are given access to the hardest-hit areas.

"We have seen that the Myanmar government is moving fast to implement their commitment. My sincere hope is that they will honor their commitment - that we have to see," Ban told reporters before leaving Bangkok, Thailand, for New York on Sunday night.

Ban said he would remain "fully, continuously and personally engaged" in the crisis and return to Myanmar "before long."

Issuing of visas to aid workers hit an immediate snag Monday when the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok - the main gateway to Myanmar - closed down its visa section after a fire ripped through part of its main building.

Embassy officials blamed an electrical wire short for the fire, which destroyed the building's second floor.

How quickly Myanmar embassies around the world issue visas to international aid workers lining up to enter the country will be an important litmus test of the junta's sincerity in allowing access.

Speaking to The Associated Press after a Sunday meeting of 51 donor nations, Ban indicated that Myanmar's isolationist junta might soon allow foreign aid workers, unhindered, into the devastated Irrawaddy delta.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that this could be a turning point for Myanmar to be more flexible, more practical, and face the reality as it is on the ground," Ban said.

But Myanmar's leaders - and potential donors - continued to take a guarded tone.

Myanmar's Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Sein said international aid "with no strings attached" was welcome. But he hedged on the sensitive issue of direct access, saying only civilian vessels could take part in the aid operation and that they would have to go through Yangon.

Myanmar's leaders have virtually barred foreign aid workers and international agencies from the delta because they fear a large influx of foreigners could lead to political interference in their internal affairs.

The junta is also hesitant to have its people see aid arriving directly from countries like the United States, which it has long treated as a hostile power seeking to invade or colonize.

The UN has estimated that of the 2.4 million people affected by the storm, about 42 percent had received some kind of emergency assistance. But of the 2 million people living in the 15 worst-affected townships, only 23 percent had been reached.

In a release seen Monday, the International Red Cross said at least 1.5 million people, many of them hungry and ailing, remained homeless in the rain-swept delta.

"It remains a race against the clock and the logistical challenges grow with the rain. What reaches the cyclone-devasated areas can't get there fast enough, and what does get through is not enough," the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

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