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Page last updated at 15:23 GMT, Monday, 19 May 2008 16:23 UK

Burma to mourn cyclone's victims

Burmese cyclone survivors on boat, Irrawaddy Delta
Burma says nearly 78,000 people died in the cyclone

Burma's junta has declared three days of official mourning for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, 17 days after the storm struck, state television has announced.

The move came as Burma's closest ally, China, began three days of mourning for its own disaster, the Sichuan quake.

Analysts say Burma's move may indicate it now recognises the scale of the disaster it initially downplayed, and could be more open to outside help.

Earlier, Burma agreed at an emergency summit in Singapore to accept more aid.

Burma's secretive military rulers have been criticised for the slow response to the 2 May disaster, which left about 78,000 dead - more than double the number killed in China's earthquake.

Catalyst for change?

The BBC's South East Asian correspondent Jonathan Head says Burma's junta still seems implacably opposed to using the US, French and British navy helicopters aboard ships anchored just off their coast.

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But the firm line they have taken until now, that they can cope without foreign expertise, is softening, he says.

Burmese state television announced that the national flag would be flown at half-mast during the mourning period, beginning on Tuesday.

"Because many people were killed by Cyclone Nargis, we have declared three days of mourning from 20 May to 22, and will lower flags to half-staff starting at 0900 (0230 GMT) on 20 May," the statement said.

The regime has so far allowed only a trickle of aid to reach the 2.4m people estimated to be in desperate need of help.

At a meeting of regional foreign ministers in Singapore on Monday, Burma promised to accept significantly more international aid to help cyclone victims.

Members of Asean talking before meeting
Asean held an emergency summit to get Burma to accept foreign help

However, it told the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) summit it wanted the aid channelled through regional personnel and organisations, rather than Western agencies.

Asean members also said they would each send medical personnel to Burma, in addition to teams already dispatched from India, Bangladesh and China.

Asean, a 10-member bloc which includes Burma, had been accused of not doing enough to persuade the generals to let in outside help.

On Monday, Burma's reclusive ruler Gen Than Shwe visited the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy Delta area, state media reported.

A day earlier he made what is thought to have been his first public gesture towards storm victims by visiting relief camps near Rangoon.

The UN said its foreign staff were still barred from the delta, although its humanitarian chief, John Holmes, was allowed to briefly tour the area on Monday.

The BBC's Andrew Harding in Bangkok says in almost any other country the spectacle of bureaucrats haggling for weeks while millions suffer might seem absurd, but in Burma it counts as progress.

Lord Malloch-Brown describes his emotional visit to Burma on Radio 4's PM programme

The cynical view is that Burma's generals are just doing the bare minimum to preserve their grip on power, the way they have always done, he says.

But this disaster is forcing an isolated elite to change its habits and there is a chance the cyclone could prove to be a catalyst for real political change, our correspondent says.

European Union nations have warned that the junta could be committing a crime against humanity by blocking aid for survivors.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit Burma on Wednesday.

Gen Than Shwe had earlier refused to take telephone calls or respond to letters from Mr Ban.

An international conference of donors to raise funds for the cyclone-ravaged country will be held in Rangoon on Sunday.


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