Page last updated at 13:42 GMT, Friday, 23 May 2008 14:42 UK

Burma 'to let in all aid workers'

Homeless Burmese children
Some 2.5 million people have been affected by the cyclone

Burma's top leader has agreed to let all foreign aid workers into the country for relief work in cyclone-hit areas, UN head Ban Ki-moon has said.

After talks in Burma's remote capital, Nay Pyi Daw, with Gen Than Shwe, Mr Ban said the decision was a breakthrough.

But correspondents say Burma has a record of withdrawing promises made to the UN. The terms under which workers and aid will be let in are unclear.

About 78,000 people died and 56,000 are missing after the 2 May cyclone.

Mr Ban said Burma would now allow the delivery of aid "via civilian ships and small boats".

But his wording suggests that the US, British and French warships waiting off the coast with supplies may not be able to dock.

Burma's military leaders had previously refused to allow a full-scale relief effort by foreign aid workers.

They had said that the relief phase of the aid operation was over and that the government was now focusing on reconstruction.

'World is watching'

Speaking to journalists after his meeting with Gen Than, Mr Ban said he was encouraged by his talks with the Burmese leadership and the agreement made.


UN secretary general upbeat after 'breakthrough' Burma aid talks

Prior to Mr Ban's visit Gen Than had failed to respond to the secretary general's letters and phone calls following the disaster.

But Mr Ban said he was pleased with the meeting:

"I had a very good meeting with the senior general and particularly on these aid workers," he said. "He has agreed to allow all the aid workers [into Myanmar], regardless of nationality," Mr Ban said.

"He's taken quite a flexible position on this matter."

But he stressed that that "implementation will be the key".

He also said that more needed to be done and warned that what happened next would be closely watched.

"I came here to give the people of Myanmar a message of hope - the world is watching, and that the world is with you," he was quoted by AFP as saying.

The BBC's Chris Hogg in Bangkok, Thailand, says one of the first priorities for foreign experts was to get a more accurate picture of needs on the ground.

But it is not clear whether they will be granted unfettered access to the worst-affected areas.

Nor is it clear whether Gen Than has agreed to give visas to foreign aid workers or let them into the Irrawaddy Delta to deliver aid.

The tragedy is that, for some people it is already too late, and it is certainly too little compared to the needs
David Miliband
UK Foreign Secretary

The offer also does not specify whether both civilian and military aid workers are included.

Burma has so far refused entry to foreign military personnel, and has asked for helicopters from further afield, mainly Africa, rather than use US helicopters stationed off its coast.

Aid agencies have given the decision a cautious welcome.

"We're trying to work out what the detail is of it," said Chris Webster of the World Vision agency.

"I'm very hopeful about the language and the rhetoric, but whether that's actually going to turn into action and a significant shift in openness remains to be seen."

'Show camp'

On Thursday, Mr Ban flew over flooded rice fields and destroyed villages and visited a government relief camp in the Irrawaddy delta.

A UN official privately called it a "show camp", says the BBC's Laura Trevelyan, in Burma with the secretary general.

Cyclone victims in Dedaye, 130 km south-west of Rangoon

Mr Ban said he was "very upset" by the devastation he saw, adding that the international community stood ready to overcome the tragedy.

Western governments have backed Mr Ban's visit, calling for pressure on Burma's leadership to do more to help the cyclone victims.

UK Foreign Secretary David Milliband told the BBC: "The tragedy is that, for some people it is already too late, and it is certainly too little compared to the needs, but we have got to use the opportunity that exists.

"We've got to keep pushing that door open and working to ensure that those desperate people get the help that they need."

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the responsibility for the situation lay with the Burmese government.

"It's a quite unusual situation actually that you have a country in this desperate straits with its population in the circumstances that this population is in - and you get a kind of stone cold face about people who just want help," she told the BBC.

The UN estimates that only a quarter of the 2.5 million Burmese affected by the cyclone have received the help they need.

The Red Cross has said that in districts further south-west of those shown to Mr Ban, waterways were still clogged with corpses and that many people had received no aid.

One foreign doctor told the BBC many were drinking water from puddles, while children and old people were suffering from dysentery, dengue fever and dehydration.


Inside a camp for homeless cyclone survivors in Labutta

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