(CBS/AP) The U.N.'s World Food Program said Thursday one of its relief planes had landed in Myanmar as part of the first major international airlift of aid to cyclone victims.
A U.N. official said a plane from Italy arrived in Myanmar, and three more were to land later in the day. The official said the planes were bringing key relief items including high-energy biscuits and medical kits.
The planes had waited on the tarmac for the last two days to get the clearance from Myanmar's military junta to bring in relief supplies to the devastated Southeast Asian country. A top U.S. diplomat warned the death toll from Saturday's storm could climb to as many as 100,000 people.
Pressure mounted quickly earlier Thursday as a U.N. official said the junta had not given clearance for relief flights to land.
Paul Risley, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program in Bangkok, old The Associated Press that the WFP is in "constant touch" with the military junta to obtain the flight clearance.
He said "it is especially frustrating that critically needed food aid is being held up."
The minutes of a U.N. aid meeting obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press revealed the military junta's visa restrictions were hampering international relief efforts.
Only a handful of U.N. aid workers had been let into the impoverished Southeast Asian country, which the government has kept isolated for five decades to maintain its iron-fisted control. The U.S. and other countries rushed supplies to the region, but most of it was being held outside Myanmar while awaiting the junta's permission to deliver it.
After the Asian tsunami in 2004, U.S. helicopters ferried in food, water and medicine up and down the hard-hit Indonesian coast, saving lives by the thousands, reports CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen. The amphibious assault ship USS Essex with its big helicopters is near Myanmar and could do the same. But the regime, angry over U.S. sanctions, is unlikely to let the U.S. military on its soil.
"They're suspicious of the motives of NGO's and the U.S. government and that is not going to change," said CBS Radio News reporter Celia Hatton. "Also many people believe that the military regime wants to get political credit for distributing aid itself so it has asked for help but it wants to be seen as giving the aid directly to the people and it wants to be able to get the thanks from the Burmese people for doing so."
Meanwhile, the military government warned residents Thursday not to be duped by rumors of an impending earthquake, a second cyclone or looting.
The state media said that "unscrupulous persons are circulating rumors" in the wake of the devastating cyclone last weekend.
It said "do not believe in rumors. Help expose the rumormongers and inform the authorities if they hear of any rumors."
Hungry people swarmed the few open shops and fistfights broke out over food and water in Myanmar's swamped Irrawaddy delta Wednesday.
Entire villages in the Irrawaddy delta were still submerged from Saturday's 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. By then his family was gone.
A spokesman for the U.N. Children's Fund said its staff in Myanmar reported seeing many people huddled in rude 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.
Myanmar's state media said Cyclone Nargis killed at least 22,980 people and left 42,119 missing.
American diplomat 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.
The situation is "increasingly horrendous," she said in a telephone call to reporters. "There is a very real risk of disease outbreaks."
A few shops reopened in the Irrawaddy delta, but they were quickly overwhelmed by desperate people, said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program in Bangkok, Thailand, 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.
Local aid groups distributed rice porridge, which people collected in dirty plastic shopping bags, he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared getting into trouble with authorities for talking to a foreign news agency.
U.N. officials estimated some 1 million people had been left homeless in Myanmar, which also is known as Burma.Continued
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.
"Teams are talking about bodies floating around in the water," he said. This is "a major, major disaster we're dealing with."
International assistance began trickling in Wednesday with the first shipments of medicine, clothing and food. But the junta, which normally restricts access by foreign officials and groups, was slow to give permission for workers to enter.
"Visas are still a problem. It is not clear when it will be sorted out," said the minutes of a meeting of the U.N. task force coordinating relief for Myanmar in Bangkok.
McCormick, the UNICEF spokesman, said the agency had 130 people in Myanmar but needed to get more in.
"We're hopeful they will start fast-tracking visas for humanitarian personnel," he said. "The government clearly weren't prepared and needs to step up to the plate. We can't work in a vacuum, and we need the host government to work with us and to eventually take over."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the junta to speed the arrival of aid workers and relief supplies "in every way possible."
As they wrangled with Myanmar officials over visas, aid groups struggled to deliver supplies.
"Most urgent need is food and water," said Andrew Kirkwood, head of Save the Children in Yangon. "Many people are getting sick. The whole place is under salt water and there is nothing to drink. They can't use tablets to purify salt water."
State television said Myanmar would accept aid from any country. It also said planes flew in Wednesday with tents from Japan, medicine and clothing from Bangladesh and India, packets of noodles from Thailand and dried bacon from China.
The first U.N. flights, carrying 45 metric tons of high energy biscuits, were due to arrive early Thursday.
Some aid workers told the AP that the government wanted emergency supplies to be distributed by relief workers already in place, rather than through foreign staff brought into Myanmar.
President Bush said the U.S. was ready to deliver aid and was prepared to use Navy ships and aircraft to help search for the dead and missing. But it wasn't known if the junta, which regularly accuses Washington of trying to subvert its rule, would accept an American military operation in its territory.
Three Navy warships participating in an exercise in the Gulf of Thailand were standing by. A U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane also landed in Thailand and another was on the way, Air Force spokeswoman Megan Orton said at the Pentagon.
In Yangon, many angry residents complained that the military regime had given vague and incorrect information about the approaching storm and provided no instructions on how to cope when it struck.
Officials in India said they had warned Myanmar about the cyclone two days before it roared into the low-lying Irrawaddy delta. B.P. Yadav, spokesman for the Indian Meteorological Department, said the agency spotted the developing storm on April 28 and gave regular updates to all countries in its path.
Myanmar told the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva that it warned people in newspapers, television and radio broadcasts of the impending storm, said Dieter Schiessl, director of the WMO's disaster risk reduction unit.
Jim Andrews, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, said satellite photos showed flooding of similar magnitude to that of Hurricane Katrina. "It's a similar kind of land to New Orleans ... an intricate network of tidal creeks and openings that allow easy access for a powerful storm surge to penetrate right into populated land," he said.
State television quoted a government official, Gen. Tha Aye, as reassuring people the situation was "returning to normal."
But residents of Yangon faced doubled prices for rice, charcoal, bottled water and cooking oil.
At a suburban market, a fishmonger shouted to shoppers: "Come, come the fish is very fresh." But an angry woman snapped: "Even if the fish is fresh, I have no water to cook it!"
Most residents of Yangon rely on wells with electric pumps for water, and power had been restored to only a small part of the city.
The cyclone came a week before a referendum on a proposed constitution backed by the junta. State radio said Saturday's vote would be delayed in areas affected by the storm, but balloting would proceed elsewhere.
A top U.S. envoy to Southeast Asia said the junta should be focusing on helping cyclone victims.
"It's a huge crisis and it just seems odd to me that the government would go ahead with the referendum in this circumstance," said Scot Marciel, the U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
This week, first lady Laura Bush called the referendum a sham, and she also criticized the junta's handling of the storm. "We know already that they are very inept," she said.
The comments drew rebukes even from some Myanmar exiles, who normally are strongly critical of the ruling generals.
Aye Chan Naing, editor of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a Myanmar opposition media operation based in Norway, said it wasn't the right time to be chastising the junta.
"Everybody knows what kind of regime they are, so there is no question about that. The question right now is how to get the aid into the country," he said. "So the best way is to use a diplomatic way and to have an open dialogue and keep talking until they agree."