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Page last updated at 11:06 GMT, Tuesday, 20 May 2008 12:06 UK

Cyclone mourning begins in Burma

A family stand in the ruins of their house in Kyauktan on 16 May 2008
Aid agencies say a huge operation is needed to help cyclone survivors

Burma has begun official mourning for victims of Cyclone Nargis, as the junta starts to accept limited outside help.

Eighteen days after the storm struck, flags were lowered to half-mast to mark the tens of thousands of people killed.

The move could be a sign that Burma's leaders now recognise the scale of the disaster, correspondents say.

On Monday, they agreed to accept more assistance from Asian neighbours - but critics say it is still not enough for all those in desperate need of help.

About 78,000 people were killed by the 2 May storm, Burma says, and another 56,000 are missing.

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New mechanism

The United Nations estimates that up to 2.4 million people have been severely affected. Tens of thousands of people are living in temporary camps because their houses have been washed away.

Aid agencies say food, shelter and medical supplies must be sent to the region immediately to prevent a second wave of deaths.

UN humanitarian chief John Holmes is currently in Burma's commercial capital, Rangoon, and is expected to meet senior Burmese officials later in the day.

Relief work to date has been seriously hampered by the military junta's reluctance to accept international help.

But, says BBC South East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head, the firm line it has taken - that it can cope without outside assistance - appears to be softening.

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

Burma declared three days of official mourning hours after its closest ally, China, began its own mourning for victims of last week's Sichuan earthquake.

Top leader Gen Than Shwe also went to cyclone-hit areas on Sunday and Monday - his first visits to the region since the storm struck.

And at an emergency meeting in Singapore on Monday of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), Burma agreed to accept significantly more international help.

But it said the aid had to be channelled through regional personnel and organisations, rather than Western agencies.

The details are expected to be agreed at a donor conference set to take place in Rangoon on 25 May.

Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo said a mechanism would be established "so that aid from all over the world can flow into Myanmar (Burma)".

Meanwhile, a senior official for the World Bank said it would not be in a position to provide financial assistance to Burma because the country is in arrears on previous loans.

While the World Bank does not provide emergency relief, it could potentially contribute to the longer-term reconstruction effort - if the debt were cleared.

BBC economics editor Andrew Walker says that while the main aid donor countries could club together to settle Burma's debt, its government is unlikely to be willing to enter into the kind of wider development programme normally accompanying World Bank assistance.

Call for access

Britain's International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander welcomed Burma's move to accept more help, but called for more flexibility.

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"Anything which may see more aid getting to the victims of Cyclone Nargis who so desperately need it is to be welcomed, but we are continuing to press the Burmese government to accept direct assistance in the affected areas from the UK and other major donors," he said.

Burma is not allowing British, US and French navy ships located just off its coast to deliver aid supplies.

Nor is it allowing foreign experts, employed by UN aid agencies, to travel into the Irrawaddy Delta, although Mr Holmes was allowed to tour parts of the region on Monday.

US-based Human Rights Watch said the UN should insist on access, accusing it of shirking its responsibilities towards the survivors.

Eyewitnesses continue to paint a wretched picture of life for survivors in the delta.

Heavy rain has been falling and many people still have no shelter. They face malnutrition and disease if more help does not arrive, aid agencies say.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is expected to arrive in Burma on Thursday and visit the storm-hit region.

He will then go to Bangkok for talks on Saturday, before returning to Burma on Sunday for the donor conference, his spokeswoman said. It is not yet clear whether he will meet Gen Than Shwe.




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