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Page last updated at 10:55 GMT, Friday, 9 May 2008 11:55 UK

Burma shuns foreign aid workers

The cyclone devastated parts of Burma's main city, Rangoon

Burma's military junta says the country is not ready to accept foreign aid workers, amid mounting criticism of its response to the devastating cyclone.

The foreign ministry said Burma was happy to accept aid, but insisted it would control the distribution itself.

The statement follows pressure from the United Nations to speed up the issuing of visas to foreign relief experts.

The World Food Programme's Paul Risley said the delays were "unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts".

Dozens of aid experts are reported to be waiting for visas in neighbouring Thailand - but the Burmese embassy there has closed for a public holiday and will not reopen until next Tuesday.

AID PLEDGES
UK $10m
UN $10m
Japan $10m
US $3m
France $3m
Australia $2.8m

The UN says up to 1.5 million people may have been affected by Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the Irrawaddy Delta region on Saturday.

Burmese state media say 22,980 people were killed, but there are fears the figure could rise to 100,000.

Hundreds of thousands of people have no food, water or shelter. International aid agencies on the ground say they have reached only 10% of those that need help.

Human rights groups have urged the generals to postpone a referendum on their much-criticised constitution, due to take place on Saturday.

They have delayed the vote in the most badly-hit regions, but intend to press ahead in the north of the country.

The UN also urged postpone, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon saying it would be "prudent to focus instead on mobilising all available resources and capacity for the emergency response efforts".

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was due to fly to Burma on Sunday to urge its leaders to allow foreign aid workers in.

But following the junta's statement, the Thai leader said there was "no point" in his visit.

'Not ready'

In a foreign ministry statement carried by The New Light of Myanmar daily, Burma's government said it would welcome cash and emergency aid.

EXTENT OF THE DEVASTATION
Detail from Nasa satellite images

But it said it had turned back a relief flight from Qatar which had an aid team and a media crew on board.

"Currently Myanmar [Burma] has prioritised receiving emergency relief provisions and is making strenuous efforts to transport those provisions without delay by its own labours to the affected areas," it said.

"As such, Myanmar is not ready to receive search and rescue teams as well as media teams from foreign countries."

Although reports suggest troops have begun to distribute significantly more aid, experts agree that the military regime lacks the resources to co-ordinate an effective relief effort.

On Thursday, the UN's humanitarian chief, John Holmes, told reporters that Burma's response to the disaster was "nothing like as much as is needed".

It has accepted limited help - some countries which have good relations with Burma have flown in aid.

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Burmese TV reports on the foreign aid that is arriving

Four flights carrying supplies from the UN's World Food Programme arrived in Rangoon on Thursday, as did an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) flight.

Reports on Thursday had suggested the US had been granted permission to fly in supplies using military planes - but officials later said no agreement had been reached.

It's more than frustrating - it's a tragedy
Eric John
US ambassador to Thailand

"We are in a long line of nations who are ready, willing and able to help, but also, of course, in a long line of nations the Burmese don't trust," US ambassador Eric John said in Bangkok.

"It's more than frustrating. It's a tragedy," he said.

The BBC's Paul Danahar, in southern Burma, says that the devastation caused by the storm is apparent everywhere.

Most of those killed were living in small communities among the patchwork of rivers and streams that make up the western part of the delta.

It was via these inlets that the tidal surge washed its way inland, swallowing up entire villages, two or three hundred people at a time, our correspondent says.




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