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May 19, 2008

UN chief to visit Myanmar to speed up relief efforts

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon plans to start a three-day visit to cyclone-ravaged Myanmar Wednesday to push for speedier relief efforts for the storm that struck the country’s southern delta including former capital Yangon on May 2.

The UN chief hopes to meet top officials of the Myanmar military regime, who has been sharply criticised around the world for obstructing international relief efforts, reported German news agency DPA.

Independent relief groups put the death toll from Cyclone Nargis at more than 100,000, with 2 million survivors at risk from starvation and disease if adequate food, medicine and other essential supplies do not arrive soon.

On Monday (May 19), the regime, which has barred almost all foreigners from its cyclone disaster zone, allowed the UN’s humanitarian chief John Holmes into the Irrawaddy delta for a brief tour.

The undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, flew by helicopter into an area where hundreds of thousands of cyclone victims are suffering from hunger, disease and lack of shelter.

Earlier, junta leader Senior Gen Than Shwe had refused to take telephone calls from Ban and had not responded to two letters from him. Holmes, who arrived in Yangon Sunday, was to deliver a third letter.

Meanwhile, a senior British official hinted a breakthrough may also be near that would allow foreign military ships to join the relief effort, but warnings grew of a potential second wave of death among children hard-hit by the lack of fresh water and proper shelter.

In one of the few positive notes of the day, British Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch-Brown told the British Broadcasting Corp that he believes the rulers of Myanmar - also known as Burma - may soon relent on allowing military ships to join in the relief effort, especially if Asian go-betweens are involved.

Myanmar's leaders, angered by criticism of their handling of the crisis, stepped up their rhetoric Sunday even amid warnings by Save the Children that thousands of children face starvation.

The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said in an editorial Sunday that the government, "mobilizing the cooperation of the people, social organisations and departments," has rushed to carry out relief and rehabilitation tasks.

State-run radio said the government has so far spent about $2 million for relief work and has received millions of dollars worth of relief supplies from local and international donors.

Still, aid agencies say some 2.5 million survivors are in desperate need of help - food, shelter from intermittent monsoon rains, medicines, clean drinking water and sanitation. A UN report said Saturday that emergency relief from the international community had reached only 500,000 people.

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