U.N.'s Ban says Myanmar to allow WFP helicopters

UNITED NATIONS Tue May 20, 2008 10:45am EDT

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said on Tuesday that Myanmar's junta had granted permission for the World Food Programme to use helicopters to distribute aid to cyclone-hit areas of the country.

The military government in the former Burma has allowed relief flights to deliver supplies to Yangon, the largest city, but had balked at aerial access to the southwestern Irrawaddy delta, where an estimated 2.4 million people were left destitute.

"We have received government permission to operate nine WFP helicopters which will allow us to reach areas that have so far been largely inaccessible," Ban told reporters before departing for a visit to Myanmar.

The top U.N. humanitarian envoy, John Holmes, said in Myanmar on Tuesday he had discussed the use of helicopters with government officials, who "took note" of his suggestion.

The junta's delays in allowing access to international aid workers has drawn criticism and warnings that many more people could die in the aftermath of the cyclone that roared across parts of the Southeast Asian country at the start of May.

Ban said he welcomed the government's "recent flexibility" but added that aid workers had so far been able to reach only around 25 percent of those in need.

He said he hoped Myanmar's reclusive leader Than Shwe would be among senior government officials he meets during his visit. Ban was due to arrive in the Thai capital Bangkok on Wednesday and go to Myanmar on Thursday.

Ban said a May 25 donors' pledging conference in Yangon would be crucial for the longer term rebuilding of the country, where he said the government had estimated the cost of the disaster at some $10 billion in economic losses.

(Reporting by Claudia Parsons; editing by John O'Callaghan)

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