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Myanmar death toll soars

YANGON (Reuters) - Diplomats witnessed “huge” devastation in the Irrawaddy delta on Saturday and the toll of dead and missing from the cyclone rose above 133,000 people, making it one of the most damaging to hit Asia.

With about 2.5 million people clinging to survival in the delta, and the military government refusing to admit large-scale outside relief, disaster experts say the death toll from Cyclone Nargis which struck on May 2 could rise dramatically.

“It was useful to catch the magnitude of the devastation. It’s huge,” Bernard Delpuech, head of the European Commission Humanitarian Office in Yangon, said of the trip.

“For the recovery you can’t expect it to be six months or a year. It will take longer,” he told Reuters from Yangon, the former Rangoon.

Helicopters took some 60 to 70 diplomats split in three groups to different parts of the delta, where Nargis struck with 120 mph (190 kmh) winds and a 12-foot (3.5 metre) wall of water.

The itineraries were arranged by the Myanmar government, under fire for refusing to allow significant numbers of foreign aid workers and major international aid operations. The generals running the country say they have things in hand.

“The purpose was to show the situation was under control. Where we were they didn’t hide anything but of course they selected the places we visited,” Delpuech said.

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

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During the Saturday tour diplomats tried at every chance to tell the accompanying Myanmar minister that the government should provide more international aid access, Delpuech said.

He said the answer was: “Yes, they’re willing, but they don’t want the people who will create more problems”.

The insistence of the military, which has ruled unchecked for the last 46 years, on handling the bulk of aid distribution seemingly stems from fear an influx of helpful foreigners might loosen its vice-like grip on power.

Myanmar state television said on Saturday media reports were inaccurate in suggesting the government was not doing enough.

There have already been tens of millions of dollars spent and extensive aid deliveries and other efforts by the army, navy and air force, state television said.

However, near the town of Kunyangon this week columns of men, women and children stretched for miles alongside the road, begging in the mud and rain for scraps of food or clothing from the occasional passing aid vehicle.

Witnesses say many refugees are crammed into monasteries and schools, fed and watered by local volunteers and private donors who have sent in clothes, biscuits, dried noodles and rice.

Buddhist monks play a major role.

Slideshow ( 39 images )

“We have distributed over 100 tonnes of rice and more than 3,000 tin roofing sheets so far. We are trying to distribute more,” said the Venerable Nyanissara, who oversees a makeshift relief centre in the town of Kunthechaung.

There, robed and shaven-headed monks receive carefully measured quotas of food for their storm-hit home villages.


Given the monks’ moral authority in the devoutly Buddhist southeast Asian nation, private donors are happy to see the men take charge of goods brought in rickety trucks and boats.

Slideshow ( 39 images )

The generals have admitted aid flights to Yangon, including around four daily from staunch critic the United States.

They have allowed in some foreign aid workers, especially from countries considered friendly. Medical teams from Thailand and India arrived on Saturday, state television said.

But aid agencies say only a fraction of needed relief gets to the inundated part of the delta, an area the size of Austria, and more lives are at risk unless the situation improves.

In a rare sign of agreement with international aid agencies, the junta on Friday night sharply raised the official toll from the disaster to 77,738 dead and 55,917 missing.

The news came on state TV, which has mainly shown footage of generals handing out food at model tented temporary villages.

People in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, are snapping up bootleg video discs of bloated corpses, desperate refugees and ravaged villages to get a fuller picture of the situation.

“Myanmar television is useless,” said a Yangon businessman.

Given the junta’s virtual ban on foreign journalists and restrictions on aid workers, independent assessment is difficult.

As international frustration mounts, envoys fly in to try to coax the junta out of its deep distrust of the outside world.

The latest is the U.N.’s top humanitarian official, John Holmes, expected to arrive in Yangon on Sunday.

A spokeswoman said Holmes will carry a third letter from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to junta leader Than Shwe, who has repeatedly ignored Ban’s requests for a conversation.

(Writing by Ed Cropley and Jerry Norton)

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