(AFP) – May 7, 2008
YANGON (AFP) — The death toll from the Myanmar cyclone could top 100,000, the top US diplomat in the country said Wednesday, as thousands of shell-shocked survivors emerged from the flood waters, desperate for food.
The dramatic warning came as global pressure mounted on Myanmar's ruling generals to open up to foreign aid, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling it a "critical moment" for one of the world's poorest nations.
UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said the country once known as Burma was facing a "major catastrophe", urging the junta to facilitate the arrival of disaster relief teams and the distribution of badly-needed emergency supplies.
An AFP reporter who reached the town of Labutta in the remote southern Irrawaddy delta hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis, which officially left more than 65,000 dead or missing, said there was virtually no food or fresh water left.
"There may well be over 100,000 deaths in the delta area," Shari Villarosa, the US charge d'affaires in Yangon, told reporters in Washington on a conference call, citing a non-governmental organisation she would not name.
Villarosa also quoted a Myanmar government source as saying "95 percent of the buildings have disappeared" in the delta.
She warned that staples like rice were in "short supply" and there was a "real risk" of disease because of a lack of clean drinking water.
In Labutta, witnesses told AFP that survivors had spent days picking through murky water strewn with festering bodies, desperate to find shelter, food, water and medical care.
"They have lost their families, they have nowhere to stay and they have nothing to eat," one witness told AFP.
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy said survivors were in "urgent need" of foreign assistance, but the White House said the secretive generals still had not responded to its offers of help.
"What remains is for the Burmese government to allow the international community to help its people," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Washington.
"It should be a simple matter. It's not a matter of politics. It's a matter of a humanitarian crisis," Rice said.
Holmes said a World Food Programme (WFP) plane was expected to arrive in Myanmar early Thursday -- five days after the cyclone washed away entire villages.
Witnesses said Saturday's storm, packing winds of 190 kilometres (120 miles) per hour, had left the delta region submerged under six-metre (20-foot) waters higher than the tree-tops -- and left countless corpses rotting in the heat.
The authorities in Yangon raised the official death toll to nearly 23,000 late Wednesday, with state media saying more than 42,000 others were still missing.
Save the Children, one of the few aid agencies allowed to operate inside Myanmar, said an estimated 40 percent of the dead or missing are believed to be children.
After days of criticism aimed at the generals who have ruled Myanmar for nearly half a century -- and who have hesitated to let in foreign relief workers -- aid began trickling into the country.
The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the WFP had already been able to distribute some food aid in Yangon, and aid has also arrived from Thailand and China.
In addition to the WFP plane due on Thursday, OCHA said another flight would leave at the end of the week from southern Italy, with 25 tonnes aid and several staff on board.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said 22 tonnes of supplies were stuck at the border with Thailand but spokesman Jennifer Pagnois said: "We do not anticipate any difficulties with the authorities getting the aid into the country."
The military, best known internationally for its long detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, had insisted that experts well versed in coping with catastrophes around the globe would not be automatically allowed in.
But after criticism of a government that declined help from abroad after the 2004 Asian tsunami, and bitter complaints that time was running out for those still alive, the generals seemed to be slowly relenting.
"We're moving in the right direction... we are making progress," Holmes told reporters at UN headquarters in New York.
White House spokesman Dana Perino told reporters: "We are increasingly concerned about the desperate situation that many people are facing there after the cyclone and we stand ready to help."
One local doctor warned that many were suffering from diarrhoea because of the miserable sanitary conditions, saying: "We need emergency rescuers."
Residents told AFP that the regime had not yet set up emergency shelters here, and that even a government rescue ship was stranded after running out of fuel.
"Assistance hasn't reached them yet and they are dying," said Save the Children's Andrew Kirkwood.
"And clearly there are millions of homeless ," he said. "But how many millions, we don't know."
The UN's Holmes said a flash appeal to donors for aid to the cyclone victims would be issued on Friday.
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