YANGON, Myanmar - Myanmar's isolationist regime blocked United Nations efforts Thursday to airlift food aid to cyclone survivors, U.N. officials said, as the hungry fought for what little food was available and drank coconut milk for lack of clean water.
Paul Risley, a spokesman of the U.N's World Food Program in Bangkok, said three flights were waiting to take off from Dubai, Dhaka and Thailand with 50 tons of high-energy biscuits. A fourth shipment aboard a scheduled Thai Airways cargo flight was likely to bring some biscuits later Thursday.
The top U.S. diplomat in the country, Shari Villarosa, has said the number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because of the scarcity of safe food and water. Myanmar's state media said Cyclone Nargis has killed at least 22,980 people and left 42,119 missing so far.
He told The Associated Press that the WFP was in "constant touch" with the military junta to obtain the flight clearance for the first major airlift of international aid, but there has been no word from officials.
Earlier, a statement from WFP in Washington indicated that a green-light for the airlift had been given, saying the planes were scheduled to land in Yangon early Thursday.
A handful of smaller shipments from neighboring countries arrived earlier in the week.
Myanmar's generals, traditionally paranoid about foreign influence, issued an appeal for international assistance after the deadly storm struck Saturday. But they have since dragged their feet on issuing visas to relief workers even as survivors face hunger, disease and flooding in the hardest hit Irrawaddy delta.
Even China, the regime's closest ally and defender, urged Myanmar to work with the international community to recover from the cyclone.
"We hope Myanmar will cooperate with the international community, will have consultation with the international community, and we hope Myanmar will overcome the disaster at an early date," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang. He said China would give $4.3 million in aid in addition to its initial pledge of $1 million.
Risley said the WFP still expected it would be allowed to execute its mission.
"We are in constant discussion with them in Yangon, and we expect to receive clearance," Risley said.
"It is enough of a challenge that visas are being held up for bringing in experienced international relief workers, but it is specially frustrating that critically needed food aid is being held up," he said.
The London-based human rights group, Amnesty International, said some donors were delaying aid for fear it would be siphoned off to the army.
WFP's regional director Anthony Banbury echoed those concerns.
"We will not just bring our supplies to an airport, dump it and take off," he told AP Television News. "This is one reason why there is a hold up now, because we are going to bring in not just supplies but a lot of capacity to go with them to make sure the supplies get to the people."
Myanmar's state television Thursday showed Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Sein distributing food packages to the sick and injured in the delta and soldiers dropping food over villages. The date of the distributions was not given.
Indian navy vessels and planes from Japan, Thailand, Singapore and Laos and Bangladesh had arrived in recent days with medicine, candles, instant noodles, raincoats and other relief supplies, the television said.
State radio said "unscrupulous elements" in Yangon were spreading rumors of an impending earthquake, a second cyclone and looting in the country's largest city. Residents say that some looting did occur at markets and stores after the storm hit.
It appeared the regime was trying both to calm the population and stop any gatherings that might turn into political agitation against widely detested military rule.
Although most Yangon residents were preoccupied in trying to restore their lives in wake of the storm, activists using the cover of an almost total power outage have scribbled fresh graffiti on the city's overpasses.
The graffiti included "X" marks — a symbol for voting "no" to a military-backed constitution which is up for a referendum Saturday. Voting has been postponed until May 24 in Yangon city, some outlying areas and parts of the delta because of the storm's destruction.
Entire villages in the Irrawaddy delta were still submerged from the storm, and bloated corpses could be seen stuck in the mangroves. Some survivors stripped clothes off the dead. People wailed as they described the horror of the torrent swept ashore by the cyclone.
"I don't know what happened to my wife and young children," said Phan Maung, 55, who held onto a coconut tree until the water level dropped.
A spokesman for the U.N. Children's Fund said its staff in Myanmar reported seeing many people huddled in roughly built shelters and children who had lost their parents.
"There's widespread devastation. Buildings and health centers are flattened and bloated dead animals are floating around, which is an alarm for spreading disease. These are massive and horrific scenes," Patrick McCormick said at UNICEF offices in New York.
A few shops reopened in the Irrawaddy delta, but they were quickly overwhelmed by desperate people, said Risley, quoting his agency's workers in the area.
"Fistfights are breaking out," he said.
A Yangon resident who returned to the city from the delta area said people were drinking coconut water because there was no safe drinking water. He said many people were on boats using blankets as sails.
U.N. officials estimated some 1 million people had been left homeless in Myanmar, which also is known as Burma.
Some aid workers said heavily flooded areas were accessible only by boat, with helicopters unable to find dry spots for landing relief supplies.
"Basically the entire lower delta region is under water," said Richard Horsey, the Thailand-based spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid.