WFP suspends flights to Myanmar as military holds up aid (Roundup)

May 9th, 2008 - 9:52 pm ICT by admin  

Rome/Bangkok, May 9 (DPA) With reports of a possible 100,000 cyclone deaths in Myanmar, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Friday suspended relief flights to Myanmar after 38 tons of aid were impounded by authorities in the disaster-struck country. “We are in discussions with the government in Myanmar and we hope to find a resolution soon,” WFP Director of Communications, Brenda Barton, told DPA at the Rome headquarters.

“It’s possible that it is only a customs-related problem,” she said on the decision to impound the aid. Before Friday’s decision, the Rome-based WFP had planned to send a further eight flights carrying aid to Myanmar, she said

The UN aid efforts have also been hampered by difficulties in obtaining visas from Myanmar’s military government, which has been condemned for failing to waive visa restrictions for humanitarian workers in the wake of the devastating storm.

The junta has appealed for international material aid but has not extended that to personnel.

More than 22,000 people have been killed and 41,000 are missing with more than a million in urgent need of assistance since Cyclone Nargis struck on Saturday.

But unofficial estimates say the final death toll could be as high as 100,000 once the victim tally is known from outlying areas, and if disease is allowed to set in.

WFP spokesman Paul Risley had earlier said food assistance was held up in a warehouse and was not put onto lorries to take them to the people who needed assistance.

A trickle of food aid arrived earlier Friday in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta, providing a small start for a massive aid programme that has been stalled by Myanmar’s generals, UN experts confirmed.

“Trucks, with 20 tons of rice and four tons of high-energy biscuits and plastic tarps, have arrived in Labutta,” said WFP spokesman Marcus Prior.

It was the first successful delivery of assistance to Labutta, one of the hardest-hit coastal towns, since Cyclone Nargis hit six days ago.

Altogether, various UN agencies operating inside the country have been able to deliver initial emergency supplies to 276,000 individuals in the country this week, but most of those were in Yangon, the former capital.

The UN now estimates that some 1.5 million people are in need of emergency assistance in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, that killed some 23,000 people and left 42,000 missing, according to government estimates.

Despite a huge outpouring of aid pledges for Myanmar, exceeding $30 million, the country’s ruling junta has delayed granting visas to emergency aid experts this week.

The natural disaster has come at a sensitive time politically for the regime, which is going ahead with plans to hold a national referendum Saturday to endorse a pro-military constitution that will cement their dominant role in politics under future elected governments.

The vote has been postponed in 47 of the worst-hit townships until May 24, but the military has ignored an international appeal to postpone the vote altogether to pay attention to the national tragedy caused by Cyclone Nargis.

Meanwhile Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong offered to host a meeting of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) foreign ministers Friday to discuss how the grouping can help Myanmar in its relief and recovery efforts in the aftermath of last weekend’s devastating cyclone, the Foreign Ministry said.

Singapore holds the Asean chairmanship. A senior officials meeting in Singapore discussed “how Asean could respond in support of Myanmar,” one of the 10 members, a ministry statement said.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej Friday abruptly cancelled plans to fly to Yangon over the weekend to persuade the ruling Myanmar junta to accept aid workers and supplies for the cyclone-devastated country from the United States. Samak said he had been informed that the Myanmar government was not ready to accept international aid workers into the country at this point, so there was no point in his flying to Yangon Sunday as planned.

In Washington, Ky Luu, director of the US Agency for International Development’s foreign disaster assistance office, did not rule out the possibility of air drops of supplies.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged Myanmar’s military government to focus on its national tragedy in the wake of Cyclone Nargis as it prepared instead to hold a referendum this weekend on a new constitution.

“Due to the scope of the disaster facing Myanmar today, however, the secretary general believes that it may be prudent to focus instead on mobilizing all available resources and capacity for the emergency response efforts,” the UN statement said.

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