Friday, May 09, 2008

Aid blocked as a million suffer, By staff writers and wires - - 9th May 2008

* Harrowing tales of survival
* Rotting bodies, no fresh water
* In pictures: the devastation in Burma

More than one million homeless in Burma were battling to stave off disease and hunger today, as the US hinted it might consider making helicopter food drops without the permission of the country's leaders.

With death toll estimates near 100,000 and the clock ticking for those who survived, Burma's junta - long suspicious of the outside world - is under new pressure to fully open up to help from abroad.

The US said today it would look at beginning helicopter food drops with Burma's permission to get aid to people still desperately in need six days after the cyclone hit. Four US Navy ships are on their way to Burma as the Bush administration steps up pressure on the junta to open its doors to help.

But the director of the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance Ky Luu has also hinted at making unauthorised food drops after a planned aid flight was cancelled by the Burmese authorities.

Responding to remarks by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that the international community should force the Burma to accept outside help, he said:"Everything within the law is considered at this point."

The United Nations believes that at least 1.5 million people have been "severely affected" by Cyclone Nargis, and some estimates put the death toll at 100,000.

The official toll is 22,997 dead, 1430 injured and 42,119 missing, but a military official estimated 80,000 dead in one delta township alone.

Aid groups say hundreds of planeloads of supplies are needed to avert a second tragedy in which the survivors of the devastating cyclone die from hunger and disease. Many of these supplies are languishing nearby with no way - or no permission - to get in.

World Vision Australia chief Tim Costello, one of the few foreigners allowed in, said the "death toll is doubling every day".

He said he had been unable to arrange visas for his 25 staff, but hoped a World Vision plane carrying $3 million in aid would be allowed to land today.

Visa problems have also hampered UN efforts to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis. UN humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes said two members of an initial disaster assessment team had been allowed in, but two more were turned back at the airport.

All four were from ASEAN countries that have reciprocal visa agreements with Burma.

"That's not an acceptable situation," Mr Holmes said, adding that UN "laissez-passer" documents should be enough to ensure access, particularly in a crisis situation.

Yesterday, Mr Kouchner urged the international community to force the reclusive Burma authorities to accept outside help, under the UN's "responsibility to protect" civilians when governments are unable or unwilling to do so.

Despite the crisis, the junta plans to go ahead with Saturday's constitutional referendum - a process critics say is only intended to cement the army's grip on power.

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