U.N. launches Myanmar appeal and resumes aid flights

YANGON (Reuters) - The United Nations appealed for $187 million in aid on Friday to help 1.5 million victims in cyclone-ravaged Myanmar and said it would resume relief flights despite the military government’s seizure of food supplies.

U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes said initial pledges totaled about $77 million to provide water, food, medicine, shelter and other supplies to survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which killed tens of thousands of people.

“I think more pledges will follow,” Holmes told reporters after he addressed representatives of the 192 member states, saying he was confident the appeal for $187 million would be met. “The important thing is that the response is there.”

While Myanmar’s reclusive junta has had little direct contact with the outside world, it stated its preference through state-run media to accept “relief in cash and kind” -- but not foreign aid workers, many of whom are waiting for visas in the Thai capital, Bangkok.

The generals approved one U.S. aid flight, due to arrive as soon as Monday, nine days after driving winds and a wall of water swept across the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta.

The U.N. World Food Programme initially said it was suspending aid flights after the military rulers of the former Burma impounded food shipments on Friday.

During an emergency meeting of member states about the U.N. appeal, dozens of envoys voiced concern at the difficulties aid workers were having getting in. But Myanmar’s envoy insisted food and other aid were being sent where needed upon arrival.

“We are ready to cooperate fully,” Ambassador Kyaw Tint Swe told the meeting. “Regarding access, we hear you and I will certainly report back to the authorities.”


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Earlier, Myanmar’s envoy said the country would accept aid “from any quarter” and confirmed it approved the U.S. flight.

“We’re going to make as effective use of that flight as we possibly can,” U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. While the permission was “positive,” he said, many more relief runs would be needed to cope with the disaster.

U.S. officials did not know who would distribute the aid from that plane once it lands, McCormack said. They were still trying to get visas for the U.S. team waiting in Bangkok.

Myanmar has not updated the official toll since Tuesday, when it said nearly 23,000 were dead and 42,000 missing. Even those numbers, predicted by Western aid workers to rise sharply, make Nargis the worst cyclone to hit Asia since 1991.

U.S. charge d’affaires Shari Villarosa has said the death toll could reach 100,000.

The United States, long strongly critical of Myanmar’s junta and the delays allowing in relief, was urging other countries to use what leverage they had with the generals.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke by telephone on Friday with Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. A day earlier she spoke with China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, McCormack said.

Ban urged the junta to accept aid and humanitarian workers “without hindrance,” saying the survival of Myanmar’s people was at stake. He said he had so far not been able to contact Myanmar’s senior general, Than Shwe, to ask him in person.

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The prime minister of neighboring Thailand, asked by Britain and the United States to try to persuade the junta to admit foreign aid workers, canceled a visit planned for this weekend after Myanmar made its opposition clear.

The World Food Programme said it had decided to send in two relief flights as planned on Saturday, “while discussions continue with the government of Myanmar on the distribution of the food that was flown in today, and not released to WFP.”

The impounded WFP shipments contained 38 metric tons of high-energy biscuits, enough to feed 95,000 people. Planes loaded with food and equipment from several Asian countries have also landed in Yangon in the past few days.

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Survivors have been mostly fending for themselves after winds of up to 190 kph (120 mph) whipped up a massive wall of seawater, inundating the delta.

The saltwater has not only destroyed homes but ruined freshwater wells, grain stores and rice fields. The survivors are desperate.

“There are no NGOs here. No U.N. Only me,” farmer Tei Lin told Reuters near the town of Labutta.

The junta broadcast a message on Friday, urging citizens to do their patriotic duty and vote on Saturday for a constitution drafted by the junta. It made no mention of the cyclone or even that voting in the affected areas has been postponed.

The junta’s opponents have suggested the reason for the delays in allowing in aid workers could be that the generals do not want an influx of foreigners before the referendum.

Chris Beyrer, a medical doctor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health in Baltimore and an expert on health care and human rights in Myanmar, said some local aid workers managed to reach the disaster site and were reporting they most needed cash to help victims buy supplies from military commanders.

“The issue is that there are food and relief supplies and medicines to some degree available and people are being charged for them,” Beyrer told a think-tank panel in Washington.

“The regime does not fundamentally have the interests of its people as its primary concern.”

The U.N. weather agency forecast more strong winds and rain for the coming week, adding more urgency to the international drive to start a full-blown disaster relief effort of the kind that was seen after the Asian tsunami in 2004.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said France was sending a naval ship with 1,500 metric tons of aid and capable of carrying heavy-lift helicopters, even as it waited for visas and authorization.

The navies of France, India and Britain are conducting exercises off the east coast of India and the U.S. Navy is taking part in joint exercises in Thailand.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, welcomed approval of the U.S. flight -- a day after saying he was “outraged” by the junta’s lack of cooperation.

“We hope this is the beginning of a broader effort between our governments,” he said, adding the U.S. Navy had several ships in the Gulf of Thailand, including one with 23 helicopters that could be used to fly aid to remote areas.

U.S. officials said the junta seemed to be taking a pragmatic approach to the crisis but did not appear to have the infrastructure to distribute aid, raising the risk that supplies could remain on the airport tarmac.

Additional reporting by Ed Cropley and Darren Schuettler in Bangkok, Phil Stewart in Rome, Paul Eckert and Susan Cornwell in Washington, Louis Charbonneau and Charlotte Parsons at the United Nations; Editing by John O’Callaghan