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Page last updated at 08:18 GMT, Monday, 5 May 2008 09:18 UK

Aid effort for cyclone-hit Burma

People queue to get drinking water in Rangoon on 5 May 2008
Many people have been left without drinking water and shelter

Some aid is beginning to reach victims of the cyclone that hit Burma on Saturday, killing hundreds of people and leaving tens of thousands homeless.

Both Burmese officials and international agencies are working to assess the scale of the disaster, with five regions declared disaster zones.

More than 350 people were killed and thousands of buildings destroyed by the storm, state media said.

But a referendum on a new constitution will still go ahead on 10 May.

"The referendum is only a few days away and the people are eagerly looking forward to voting," the government said in a statement carried by state media.

Burma's leaders say the referendum will pave the way for multi-party elections in 2010, but critics say the charter is aimed primarily at further entrenching military rule.

'Not accessible'

UN and international aid agencies are meeting today in the Thai capital, Bangkok, to co-ordinate their response to the disaster.

The military regime is ill-prepared to deal with the aftermath of the cyclone
Naing Aung, Forum for Democracy in Burma

But Terje Skavdal, regional head of the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that understanding the scale of the damage would take time.

"The government is having as much trouble as anyone else in getting a full overview," he told Reuters news agency.

"Roads are not accessible and many small villages were hit and will take time to reach."

Movements of foreign aid workers are restricted in military-ruled Burma, so most agencies use teams of local staff.

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Aerial footage of the damage

Mr Skavdal said the UN would "have a dialogue with the government to try to get access to the people affected."

The Red Cross, meanwhile, said teams were distributing emergency supplies including water and blankets in the worst-hit Irrawaddy region.

"We went out as soon as possible but there were problems with mobility due to a lot of debris and power lines down," spokesman Michael Annear told the French news agency AFP.

"Authorities and the local community have been clearing the road networks so mobility has increased today."

Naing Aung, secretary general of the Thailand-based Forum for Democracy in Burma, said international help was urgently required.

"The military regime is ill-prepared to deal with the aftermath of the cyclone," he said.

'Villages flattened'

Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the country two days ago with winds of speeds reaching 190km/h (120 mph).

In Rangoon, roofs were blown off buildings and electricity supplies cut.

Shari Villarosa, the leading US diplomat in the city, said the storm had caused devastation.

"The Burmese are saying they have never seen anything like this, ever," she told the Associated Press news agency.

Rescue workers have yet to reach some of the worst-hit areas of the country, including the low-lying Irrawaddy delta region, which was also hit by a storm surge.

"The villages there have reportedly been completely flattened," said Chris Kaye, the UN's acting humanitarian co-ordinator in Rangoon.

State-run television reported that at least 162 people had been killed on Haing-Gyi island, off the country's south-west coast. About 20,000 homes have been destroyed on the island, and 90,000 people made homeless.

Burma, one of the poorest nations in Asia, has already been hard-hit by rising fuel and food prices.

It has been under military rule since 1962, and the government stifles most dissenting voices.

Last September, at least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military suppressed anti-government protests led by Buddhist monks.




SEE ALSO
In pictures: Burmese clean-up
05 May 08 |  In Pictures
Hundreds killed by Burma cyclone
04 May 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Animated guide: Hurricanes
01 Jun 05 |  Science/Nature
Country profile: Burma
23 Jan 08 |  Country profiles

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