YANGON Myanmar's military government came under pressure on Wednesday to open its borders to more international help after a devastating cyclone that a U.S. diplomat said may have killed more than 100,000 people.
Washington, a vocal critic of the junta that has ruled the former Burma for more than four decades, said humanitarian access should not be a political matter.
"What remains is for the Burmese government to allow the international community to help its people. It should be a simple matter. It is not a matter of politics," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Washington.
John Holmes, the top U.N. humanitarian official, urged Myanmar to waive visa restrictions he said were slowing efforts to bring in relief experts and supplies to help an estimated one million people affected by Cyclone Nargis.
The cyclone, with 190 kph (120 mph) winds, slammed into coastal towns and villages in the rice-growing Irrawaddy delta southwest of Yangon on Saturday. Witnesses reported villages destroyed and people fighting for survival by clutching trees.
Limited international aid has trickled in and the military junta's own aid operation has moved up a gear with some helicopter drops, but land convoys were nowhere to be seen, a Reuters witness in the delta said.
State Myanmar radio and television reported a death toll of 22,980 with 42,119 missing and 1,383 injured in the world's most devastating cyclone since 1991.
Holmes said the death toll could rise "very significantly."
Shari Villarosa, charge d'affaires of the U.S. embassy in Myanmar, said, "The information that we're receiving indicates that there may well be over 100,000 deaths in the delta area."
That figure was not confirmed, but was based on estimates by an international non-governmental organization that she declined to identify, Villarosa told reporters on a conference call from Yangon.
She said recent Myanmar government estimates put the death toll at 70,000, mainly in the delta area.
In one town alone, Bogalay, at least 10,000 people were killed, according to a town-by-town list of casualties and damage announced by the reclusive military government.
'RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT'
Political analysts and critics of 46 years of military rule said the cyclone may have long-term implications for the junta, which is even more feared and resented since September's bloody crackdown on Buddhist monk-led protests.
With the delta virtually cut off and frustration growing among aid agencies and governments, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested invoking a U.N. "responsibility to protect" clause without waiting for the junta's approval.
Holmes, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said that would be premature. "We are having useful and constructive discussions with the authorities of Myanmar," he told reporters at the United Nations.
"It is moving in the right direction, we want it to move much faster clearly, but I'm not sure it would help at this moment at least to embark on what could at least be seen by some people as a confrontation."
Richard Horsey of the U.N. Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in Bangkok that 5,000 square km (1,930 square miles) of the delta were under water.
"With all those dead mostly floating in the water at this point you can get some idea of the conditions facing the teams on the ground. It's a major logistical challenge," he said.
Storm surges hit when people were sleeping "and just inundated them, or swept them out to sea," Villarosa said. "The government officials told us 95 percent of the buildings in the delta area are gone or have collapsed."
Thailand, China, India and Indonesia were flying in relief supplies and the U.N. World Food Program said it had sent four planes with aid that were expected to arrive on Thursday.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Myanmar do more to facilitate international aid.
Holmes said four Asian U.N. officials had been cleared to go as part of an initial assessment team but up to 100 U.N. staff were still waiting. He said they had not been refused visas, but the process was taking too long.
Twenty-four countries had pledged $30 million and more aid offers were expected after the U.N. sets out its priorities and target for aid in a flash appeal on Friday. The U.N. emergency relief will contribute at least $10 million.
At Yangon airport, a Reuters photographer on a Thai military plane said two Indian planes and one Chinese transport plane with tents and construction materials had also landed.
The United Nations recognized in 2005 the "responsibility to protect" civilians when their governments could or would not do it, even if this meant violating national sovereignty.
France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, asked the Security Council to take a stand on the crisis by calling for a humanitarian briefing and issuing a statement. Diplomats said China, Russia, Vietnam and South Africa were opposed, arguing it has nothing to do with peace and security.
(Additional reporting by Darren Schuettler and Sukree Sukplang in Bangkok, Sue Pleming in Washington, Francois Murphy in Paris, Michael Perry in Sydney, Louis Charbonneau and Claudia Parsons at the United Nations; Writing by Claudia Parsons; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Chris Wilson)