The US delivered its first relief supplies to Myanmar yesterday, as the UN urged the reclusive nation to open its doors to foreign experts who could help up to 2 million cyclone victims facing disease and starvation.
The unarmed military C-130 cargo plane, packed with supplies, flew out of the Thai air force base of Utapao and landed in Yangon, capping prolonged negotiations to persuade Myanmar’s military government to accept US help.
Several Myanmar Cabinet ministers, military officers and the top US diplomat in Myanmar, Shari Villarosa, greeted the plane.
Government spokesman Ye Htut said the aid, which was transferred to Myanmar army trucks, would be ferried by air force helicopters to the worst-hit Irrawaddy Delta later yesterday. Two more US air shipments were scheduled to land today.
The official death toll from Cyclone Nargis is 28,458 with another 33,416 still missing. But UN Assistant Secretary-General Catherine Bragg said it could be 62,000 to 100,000, “or possibly even higher than that.”
“It’s still a very serious situation,” Richard Horsey, a spokesman for UN humanitarian operations, said in Bangkok. “There are up to 2 million people in urgent need of assistance. Assistance is getting through, but not fast enough.”
He said the four key requirements in a crisis like this — clean drinking water, shelter, medical support and food — were sorely lacking.
Though international assistance has started trickling in, the authoritarian government has barred most foreign experts who are experienced in managing humanitarian crises.
“The authorities of the country need to open up to an international relief effort. There are not enough boats, trucks, helicopters in the country to run the relief effort of the scale we need,” Horsey said. “It’s urgent that the authorities do open themselves up.”
The junta has made a huge concession in letting the US — the fiercest critic of its human rights record — bring in relief.
The US plane carried 12,700kg of supplies including mosquito nets, blankets and water in an operation dubbed “Joint Task Force Caring Response.”
Also on the plane was Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of the US military in the Pacific, who will try to personally negotiate with the junta for a larger US role in providing relief.
In the Irrawaddy Delta, people were surviving in miserable conditions, including hundreds cramped in monasteries with little access to food. Others camped in the open, drinking dirty water contaminated by human feces or dead bodies.
“The lives of thousands of cyclone survivors are at extreme risk,” aid group World Vision said. “Displaced people are living in appalling conditions in makeshift shelters and camps where overcrowding and unsanitary conditions are prevalent.”
Children — many of them orphans — are suffering from fever, diarrhea and respiratory infections, it said.
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