UN: Myanmar blocks UN emergency airlift for cyclone victims

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.

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.

A handful of smaller shipments from neighboring countries arrived earlier in the week.

"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.

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