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Page last updated at 08:21 GMT, Thursday, 8 May 2008 09:21 UK

Fears rise over Burma aid delays

People wait for aid in Labutta on 7 May 2008
Hundreds of thousands of people need food, water and shelter

Burma's leaders are facing growing international concern over their reluctance to accept foreign aid, days after the devastating cyclone.

The UN says its planes carrying vital food supplies cannot enter because they still do not have permission to land.

But the regime has now given permission for at least one US aid flight to land in the country.

A US diplomat has said conditions are "horrendous" and warned the death toll could top 100,000 if they worsened.

Teams reaching some of the worst-hit areas have described harrowing scenes.

Some aid workers reported bodies rotting in the fields and desperate survivors fighting over food and water.

It's not a matter of politics, it's a matter of a humanitarian crisis
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

Buildings have been swept away, leaving up to a million people homeless, and swathes of land are under water, sparking fears of disease.

Burmese troops are pushing into the affected areas but BBC correspondents say their resources are inadequate to deal with a disaster of this magnitude.

A four-man UN assessment team is due on the ground in Burma later on Thursday.

Experts say that a massive aid operation is needed to help those affected by Cyclone Nargis, which smashed into the low-lying Irrawaddy delta region on Saturday.

But the Burmese government has spurned some offers of aid, such as one from the US to deploy navy ships, and many foreign aid workers are being held in a queue for visas.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said three UN flights from Bangkok, Dhaka and Dubai with 40 tonnes of high energy biscuits were still awaiting clearance by Burmese authorities.

EXTENT OF THE DEVASTATION
Detail from UN cyclone map

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WFP spokesman Paul Risley told AP news agency: "It is especially frustrating that critically needed food aid is being held up."

Late on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Burma had to let the international community help.

"It should be a simple matter. It's not a matter of politics. It's a matter of a humanitarian crisis," she said.

The regional Association of South-East Asian Nations has also urged the military regime to allow in aid flights "before it's too late".

Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said it was trying to communicate to the military regime the sense of urgency.

China, a close ally of Burma, has also urged it to work with the international community. Foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang added that Beijing would raise its relief aid to $5.3m.

UK aid agencies have launched an urgent joint appeal to raise funds for victims. The Disasters Emergency Committee said the need for aid was "immediate and vast".

Burma's military regime has meanwhile urged citizens to ignore rumours of looting, with state media saying they were being spread by "unscrupulous persons".

'Mistrustful'

On Wednesday, the top US diplomat in Burma said that the number of deaths could be much higher than reported.

Before and after: extent of flooding clear in Nasa satellite images

Burmese state media says 22,980 people have been confirmed dead and another 42,119 are missing.

But Shari Villarosa, the charge d'affaires of the US embassy in Burma said the death toll could reach or exceed 100,000, based on information from a non-governmental organisation that she would not name.

A local military official, Tin Win, told AFP news agency 80,000 had died in the remote district of Labutta alone.

Survivors in the district described the sea surge brought by Saturday's storm.

"The waves were so strong, they ripped off all my clothes. I was left naked hanging in a tree," one teenager said.

"The storm came into our village, and a giant wave washed in, dragging everything into the sea," said another man in his 20s.

The BBC's Paul Danahar, in southern Burma, says that those still alive are surrounded by the dead - and they are without food and shelter.

He adds that while some aid is trickling into the country, much more is lying idle on its borders.

This weekend there is to be a referendum on a new constitution. The international community has already condemned it as a sham.

The generals may be worried that letting in foreigners ahead of the that poll could stoke more criticism of their political reforms, our correspondent says.


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