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Asia Crisis

Hopes for Myanmar cyclone aid rise as ASEAN meets

* Eyes on Singapore ASEAN meeting

* U.N.'s Ban to visit Myanmar this week

* Turning point may be near on aid access

* WFP says less than one-third of neediest getting food (Updates with U.N. humanitarian chief, adds Save the Children comment, edits)

By Aung Hla Tun

YANGON, May 19 (Reuters) - Hopes of a deal to speed up aid to millions of Myanmar cyclone victims rose on Monday as the U.N. said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would visit this week and Southeast Asia kicked off its own disaster-response meeting.

Ban's trip is expected to culminate in a rare tete-a-tete with junta supremo Than Shwe, who has refused to answer phone calls from the United Nations boss since Cyclone Nargis struck two weeks ago, leaving 134,000 dead and missing and up to 2.5 million destitute.

The U.N. also wants a conference in Bangkok on May 24 to marshal funds for the relief effort in the former Burma, where the military government has so far refused to admit large-scale foreign aid for fear it will loosen its 46-year grip on power.

Humanitarian agencies say the death toll from Nargis, already one of the most devastating cyclones to hit Asia, could soar without a massive increase of emergency food, shelter and medicine to the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta.

Non-government aid organisation Save the Children said in a Sunday statement its research had found some "30,000 children under the age of five in the cyclone-affected Irrawaddy Delta were already acutely malnourished before the cyclone hit."

"Of those, Save the Children believes that several thousand are at risk of death in the next two to three weeks because of a lack of food."

However, Britain's Asia minister, Mark Malloch-Brown, told Reuters in Yangon on Sunday that diplomats may have turned the corner in brokering a deal to get aid flowing which accommodated the generals' deep distrust of the outside world -- and in particular the West.

"Like all turning points in Burma, the corner will have a few 'S' bends in it," Malloch-Brown said after a series of meetings with top junta officials.

Little is known about the deal, although it is probably no coincidence foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, were holding a cyclone response meeting on Monday in Singapore.

Malloch-Brown, who came to Yangon after visiting some ASEAN members, said an Asian/U.N.-led process had already begun and other countries would make contributions through this channel.

Asian nations considered friendly by Myanmar have sent in aid groups and an ASEAN assessment team that has been on the ground in the delta is due to report to the Singapore meeting.

TRICKLE OF AID

While aid has been trickling into Myanmar, the U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) says it has managed to get rice and beans to just 212,000 of the 750,000 people it thinks are most in need.

"It's not enough. There are a very large number of people who are yet to receive any kind of assistance and that's what's keeping our teams working round the clock," WFP spokesman Marcus Prior said in Bangkok.

Myanmar analysts are making much of the reclusive Than Shwe's first appearance since the disaster in Yangon, the city he deserted for a remote new capital 250 miles (390 km) to the north in 2005.

State television showed the bespectacled 74-year-old Than Shwe meeting in Yangon on Monday with ministers involved in the rescue effort and touring some cyclone-hit areas.

The U.N.'s Ban is likely to land in Yangon on Wednesday evening and travel to the Irrawaddy delta, his spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile the U.N.'s chief humanitarian officer, John Holmes, started a government tour of the delta on Monday after flying in on Sunday night, officials said.

He is expected to meet Prime Minister Thein Sein on Tuesday and deliver a message from Ban to the generals.

Ban previously proposed a "high-level pledging conference" to deal with the crisis, as well as having a joint coordinator from the United Nations and ASEAN to oversee aid delivery.

RECORD DAMAGE

In the last 50 years, only two Asian cyclones have exceeded the human toll of Nargis -- a 1970 storm that killed 500,000 people in neighbouring Bangladesh and another that killed 143,000 people in 1991, also in Bangladesh.

At least 232,000 people were killed when the tsunami struck nations bordering the Indian Ocean.

Despite his optimism on aid deal, Britain's Malloch-Brown said the junta's lingering suspicions made it unlikely foreign aid workers would be admitted in numbers comparable to other recent disasters in Asia. (Writing by Jerry Norton and Ed Cropley; Editing by John Chalmers)

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