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Burma leader meets storm victims

Burmese General Than Shwe visits cyclone survivors 18/05/08
General Than Shwe was pictured visiting victims near Rangoon

The leader of Burma's military junta has met victims of the country's devastating cyclone for the first time.

More than two weeks since the storm hit, General Than Shwe visited relief camps near Rangoon.

A senior UN envoy has arrived in Burma to urge the military regime to accept more international aid. UN chief Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit soon.

Burma says some 78,000 people have died since the cyclone, but aid agencies say many more may die without urgent help.

Than Shwe was shown by Burmese state television visiting relief camps in the Hlaing Thar Yar and Dagon suburbs of Rangoon.

The general inspected relief supplies and spoke to survivors of the cyclone, which flattened and flooded villages across the Irawaddy delta, as well as parts of the main city, Rangoon.

Aid 'starting to move'

The junta has been criticised around the world for obstructing international efforts to help the cyclone victims.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown this week said its response was "inhuman".

However, UK Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch-Brown said on Sunday that the aid operation was finally "starting to move".

He said there were signs that Burma might accept a compromise brokered by Asian intermediaries to allow more foreign help, including allowing Western ships to deliver aid.

"We're just going to have see what negotiations in the coming days by the Asian leaders, by the UN secretary-general, achieve. I think you're going to see quite dramatic steps by the Burmese to open up," he told the BBC.

His comments came just before UN humanitarian envoy John Holmes arrived in Burma for talks with members of the junta about widening the relief effort.

Burmese children shelter from the rain under empty plates
The cyclone has filled rice fields with sea water, destroying vital crops

Mr Holmes is carrying a letter from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to General Than Shwe, who has refused to answer Mr Ban's calls, or answer two previous letters, a UN spokesperson said.

Mr Ban will travel to Burma himself in the coming week, probably on Wednesday or Thursday.

Lord Malloch-Brown says only about 25% of the cyclone's most needy victims have received the help they need.

And Save the Children says 30,000 acutely malnourished children under five years of age are threatened by death from starvation.

The charity says if they do not receive energy-rich food now they could starve to death within weeks.

EXTENT OF THE DEVASTATION
Detail from Nasa satellite images

"When people reach this stage they can die in a matter of days... We need to reach more before it is too late," said Save the Children UK's chief executive, Jasmine Whitbread.

On Saturday, Burma took foreign diplomats on a helicopter tour of the Irrawaddy Delta.

But Shari Villarosa, the top US diplomat in Burma, dismissed the visit as a "show".

However, Bernard Delpuech, head of the European Commission Humanitarian Office in Rangoon, said the trip had at least shown "the magnitude of the devastation".


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