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Page last updated at 14:41 GMT, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 15:41 UK

Ban to meet Burma's top general

A young boy stands in line to receive donated goods at a monastery outside Rangoon on 19 May 2008
Almost three weeks on, many people still need much more help

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon says Burma's top leader has agreed to meet him when he visits the cyclone-hit country later this week.

Mr Ban will tour devastated regions on Thursday and then fly to the remote capital, Nay Pyi Taw, for talks with General Than Shwe on Friday.

Than Shwe has until now refused to answer Mr Ban's calls, and blocked large-scale international aid.

Mr Ban's visit follows that of the UN humanitarian co-ordinator John Holmes.

Mr Holmes has described his negotiations with the Burmese government as painful and frustrating.

He also said he was very worried about the lack of reliable information from the disaster zone, and that he could still not be sure how many survivors were waiting to be reached.

He added that a lot was riding on the meeting between Mr Ban and the Burmese leadership.

Meanwhile the UN says relief efforts must be scaled up to avoid more deaths.

The death toll from Cyclone Nargis currently stands at 78,000 dead, with another 56,000 missing.

Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes and, almost three weeks after the storm struck, the UN says that less than a quarter of the 2.4 million people affected have received aid.

'Scaled up'

Ban Ki-moon confirmed the meeting as he arrived in Thailand on his way to Burma.

Ban Ki-moon
I will do my utmost for the people of Myanmar (Burma)
Ban Ki-moon

"After going to the affected areas, I will meet with senior government officials, including Senior General Than Shwe," the UN secretary-general told journalists.

Before he left the US, Mr Ban said he would do his utmost to help the people of Burma.

"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 said.

He welcomed some signs of flexibility from the junta, including its decision to accept relief workers from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), and said the UN had received permission for nine World Food Programme helicopters to operate in remote areas.

"I believe further similar moves will follow, including expediting the visas of [foreign] relief workers seeking to enter the country," he said.

"I'm confident that emergency relief efforts can be scaled up quickly."

'Access needed'

As well as the talks in Nay Pyi Taw, Mr Ban will also attend a donor conference in Burma's commercial capital, Rangoon, on Sunday.

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Some countries have welcomed the conference, which was agreed on Monday at an emergency Asean meeting in Singapore.

But the US envoy to Asean, Scot Marciel, questioned its relevance.

"Without an adequate and independent assessment of the situation and current needs, as well as a commitment by the regime to provide the necessary access, a pledging conference is unlikely to produce the results we seek," he told a congressional hearing.

On Wednesday, Burmese state media appeared to rule out accepting aid ferried by US navy ships and helicopters off its coast, saying it would come "with strings attached".

But Mr Marciel said the junta was clearly not capable of managing the logistics for such a massive relief effort.

"The situation on the ground is increasingly desperate, and the regime's failure to provide greater access to the international community to the affected area is putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk."

The UN says that tens of thousands of people are living in more than 200 temporary camps across the region.

Health centres and schools have been wiped out and while food aid is getting in, it has still not reached some of the remotest areas.

Three days of mourning are currently under way in Burma for the cyclone victims.


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