(CBS/AP) Relief supplies from the United Nations began arriving in Myanmar on Thursday, but U.S. military planes loaded with aid were still denied access by the country's isolationist regime five days after a devastating cyclone.
The military junta also continued to stall on visas for U.N. teams seeking entry to ensure the aid is delivered to the victims amid fears that lack of safe food and drinking water could push the death toll above 100,000.
Four airplanes carrying high-energy biscuits, medicine and other supplies arrived in Yangon Thursday, U.N. officials said. Two of four U.N. experts who had flown to Myanmar to assess the damage were turned back at the Yangon airport for unknown reasons, said John Holmes, the U.N. relief coordinator. But the other two were allowed to enter.
By rejecting the U.S. offer of help, the junta is refusing to take advantage of Washington's enormous ability to deliver aid quickly, which was evident during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.
"We have demonstrated in crises around the world ... our logistical capability to get humanitarian assistance quickly in to the people who need it," said Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Myanmar.
U.S. President George W. Bush's national security spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said Washington was still working to gain permission to enter Myanmar.
Ky Luu, the director of the U.S. office of foreign disaster assistance, said one option would be to airdrop relief aid. But U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he could not imagine doing so without the military junta's permission.
France has argued that the U.N. has the power to intervene to help civilians because of an agreement by world leaders at a 2005 summit that the international body has a "responsibility to protect" people sometimes when nations fail to do it. But that agreement did not mention natural disasters.
Myanmar's generals, traditionally paranoid about foreign influence, issued an appeal for international assistance after the storm struck Saturday. They have since dragged their feet on issuing visas to relief workers even as survivors faced hunger, disease and flooding.
"What is critically needed at this point is for Myanmar authorities to open up to a major international relief effort," said U.N. spokesman Richard Horesy. "If that is not done quickly, there is a major risk that there will be a second phase to this disaster where large numbers of people will die of communicable disease."
Andrew Kirkwood, Save the Children's Burma director, was in Yangon when the cyclone hit.
"It's hard to describe just how urgent the humanitarian need is at the moment," he told CBS Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen. "I think that everybody was just completely amazed by the scale of the destruction."
Kirkwood, who has been delivering what assistance he can since the disaster struck, said "people in the worst affected regions right now, their absolute most urgent need is drinking water and food. Many people are still in areas that are inundated with saltwater, so fresh water is an absolute necessity."
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej offered to negotiate on Washington's behalf to persuade Myanmar's government to accept U.S. help - seen as crucial because it is so well-equipped to reach isolated communities by helicopter.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband asked Myanmar's junta to "lift all restrictions on the distribution of aid."
The Association of Southeast Nations appealed to the international community to keep sending aid through Thailand.
"Please keep the help coming, keep the contributions coming, and if you have to, go to Thailand, park there and wait for redistribution from there," said ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan.
The U.S. military sent more humanitarian supplies and equipment to a staging area in Thailand on Thursday. A C-17 transport plane with water and food landed Thursday, joining the two C-130s in place, Air Force spokeswoman Megan Orton said at the Pentagon. Another C-130 loaded with supplies was on its way, she said.
The Navy also has three ships participating in an exercise in the Gulf of Thailand that could help in any relief effort, including an amphibious assault ship with 23 helicopters aboard.
China, Myanmar's closest ally, urged the military junta to work with the international community. The London-based human rights group Amnesty International said some donors were delaying aid for fear it would be siphoned off to the army.
The World Food Program's regional director, Anthony Banbury, indicated the United Nations had similar concerns.
"We will not just bring our supplies to an airport, dump it and take off," he said.
So far, the United Nations has recorded donations to Myanmar relief totaling US$25 million (euro16.29 million) from 28 nations, the European Union and charities. An additional US$25 million (euro16.29 million) has been pledged.
Myanmar's state media said Cyclone Nargis killed at least 22,997 people and left 42,019 missing, mostly in the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta. Shari Villarosa, who heads the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, said the number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because safe food and water were scarce and unsanitary conditions widespread.
Asked if that figure was conceivable, Tim Costello, a CEO of World Vision Australia, said hours after arriving in Yangon: "Sadly, I think it is."
There were eerie echoes of the 2004 tsunami, where the number of fatalities in the hardest hit nation, Indonesia, was doubling every day for nearly two weeks, he said during a telephone press conference.
U.N. officials estimated as many as 1 million people were left homeless in Myanmar, which also is known as Burma.
Entire villages in the 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 found it hard to hang on," said Ko Zaw Oo, a farmer in his 30s, who told World Vision he tried to cling to a coconut tree with his family as he watched his home break apart around him.
"Finally I had to let go of my 4-year-old," he said, shaking with emotion and tears, adding that only 70 of the 300 people living in his small township survived.
The World Health Organization has received reports of malaria outbreaks in the worst-affected area, and said fears of waterborne illnesses surfacing due to dirty water and poor sanitation also remained a concern.
In Yangon, the country's largest city, the cyclone blew off the roof of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and cut the electricity to her dilapidated lakeside bungalow, where she is under house arrest, a neighbor said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Stricken villagers living in surrounding areas complained that they had received no government assistance and were relying on aid from Buddhist monasteries.
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 distribution was not given.
Although most Yangon residents were preoccupied with trying to restore their lives, activists wrote fresh graffiti on overpasses, including "X" marks - a symbol for voting "no" in a referendum Saturday on a new military-backed constitution.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Myanmar's rulers to postpone voting and focus on cyclone relief, saying he was "deeply concerned about the welfare of the people of Myanmar at this time of national tragedy."
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