Energy-biscuits trickle in to cyclone-hit Myanmar

A plane carrying 18 tons of high-energy biscuits arrived in Yangon Friday, a small part of a massive aid programme for cyclone-struck Myanmar that continues to be hampered by government-restrictions and logistical stags, dpa reported.

A plane carrying 18 tons of biscuits and medical supplies from stockpiles in Dubai landed at 7:30 am in Yangon, and another delivery from Dhaka, Bangladesh, with 20 tons of biscuits was en route, said World Food Programme (WFP) spokesman Marcus Prior in Bangkok.

The WFP has had less luck getting food supplies out to the Irrawaddy delta, where more than 1 million people are in need of food, water and medicines in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, that hit Myanmar's central coastline on May 2 and 3, leaving tens-of-thousands dead or missing.

According to the government's latest figures, the cyclone claimed 22,997 lives, left 42,119 missing and 1,403 injured.

Other sources claim the real death toll is closer to 100,000.

Most of the casualties were in Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta, the country's low-lying coastal plains where an estimated 60 per cent of the nation's rice is grown. Faced with devastated infrastructure and security obstacles, only a trickle of emergency aid has made it out to the delta.

"We got four tons of energy biscuits down to Labutta yesterday and 20 tons of rice was expected to arrive Thursday night but Labutta is obviously critical," said Prior.

Labutta and Bogalay, two of the largest coastal cities in the Irrawaddy, were among the hardest hit by the cyclone. Six days after the storm, they remain largely cut off from assistance, primarily because of restrictions placed on international aid workers by Myanmar's military regime.

The regime, which plans to hold a referendum Saturday designed to seal its political dominance by getting the public's endorsement of a pro-military constitution, has proven the biggest impediment to the disaster-relief effort underway.

Visas needed to get UN experts in to the country to set up the logistics for the relief programme were still facing delays in Bangkok, said Richard Horsey, spokesman for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN agency that is heading the Myanmar aid effort.

OCHA is expected to issue an international "Relief Appeal," some time Friday, after trying to assess the extent of the calamity.

The biggest tragedy remains the reluctance with which the Myanmar government is handling the global outpouring of aid to its stricken people.

"Myanmar has not completely waived visa requirements to foreign aid workers ready to bring much needed relief goods to the more than 1 million people severely affected by the cyclone," said John Holmes, the UN undersecretary general for emergency humanitarian assistance.

The Myanmar government has also not clearly answered queries by the United Nations as to whether the relief goods would be exempted from customs charges. In addition, it was demanding that foreign relief workers be escorted.

"I am disappointed by the progress received since yesterday (Wednesday), a little of progress as I said, but nothing like as much as needed given the desperate situation," Holmes told reporters Thursday.

The UN echoed the frustration of willing contributors of aid, saying that Myanmar has been slow to welcome and accept international aid.

Holmes described the military government in Myanmar as an "isolated and suspicious regime," that has so far failed to welcome outside help to the worsening humanitarian conditions created by the cyclone that hit a wide part of the country's delta, killing more than 23,000 people.

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