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Page last updated at 16:04 GMT, Tuesday, 20 May 2008 17:04 UK

UN to fly aid to Burmese victims

Survivors of Cyclone Nargis rest inside their makeshift shelter in Burma
Aid agencies say a huge operation is needed to help cyclone survivors

Burma has allowed nine UN World Food Programme helicopters to deliver aid to remote cyclone-hit areas, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says.

He said aid had reached only a quarter of those in need, following the 2 May storm which killed tens of thousands.

Mr Ban welcomed the Burmese military's "recent flexibility" in allowing Asian aid workers into the country, relaxing restrictions on foreign relief teams.

Mr Ban is to meet officials of Burma's ruling junta and tour affected areas.

"I want to see the conditions under which relief teams are working, and I intend to do all I can to reinforce their efforts, in co-ordination with the Myanmar [Burma] authorities and international aid agencies," he told reporters at UN headquarters in New York.

The statement came as Burma began official mourning for victims of Cyclone Nargis.

Ban Ki-moon
We have a functioning relief program in place but so far we have been able to reach only about 25% of people in need
Ban Ki-moon

Eighteen days after the storm struck, flags were lowered to half-mast to honour the victims.

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

Despite the generals' acceptance of more aid from Asian neighbours on Monday, critics say it is still not enough for all those in desperate need of help.

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

The UN 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.

"This is a critical moment," Mr Ban said.

"We have a functioning relief program in place but so far we have been able to reach only about 25% of Myanmar [Burma's] people in need."

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

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Villagers chase after food donations

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

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 UN humanitarian chief John 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.

Mr Ban is expected to arrive in Burma on Thursday.

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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