First foreign aid workers arrive in Burma's cyclone zone after UN chief negotiates access

A team of six foreign relief experts from the UN childrens' agency, UNICEF, arrived in Burma's cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy delta Monday, as UN chief Ban Ki-moon headed home to New York after negotiating more access to the storm's victims.

Millions still need food, water: Red Cross

The first foreign aid experts arrived in Burma's cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy River delta Monday, after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon convinced the country's reclusive military regime to lift some restrictions on international relief efforts to the storm's 2.4 million victims.

A team of six experts from the UN children's agency, UNICEF, arrived in the cyclone zone and began conducting a rapid assessment of emergency needs, the agency's spokesman in Rangoon, Michael Bociurkiw, told CBC news.  

"The bottom line is reaching the most vulnerable, women and children who've not had help, as quickly as possible, and with interventions that are going to save lives," Bociurkiw said. More than a million people have received no assistance at all, he added, and the new relief team would concentrate on reaching those people first.

A spokesman for UN humanitarian operations in Burma, also known as Myanmar, said the way was now clear for aid to start flowing on a large scale, if the country's generals live up to their promises.

Speaking from Bangkok in neighbouring Thailand, Richard Horsey said UN logistical operations have improved and more boats and helicopters will be arriving in the coming days.

"If this operation can quickly scale up in the coming days, we can start to reach all those who need to be reached," Horsey told the Associated Press.

The storm struck Burma on May 2, devastating low-lying areas of the Irrawaddy  delta, as well as the largest city, Rangoon. More than 130,000 people are dead or missing, and there are fears of epidemics unless safe drinking water can be made widely available.

Donors, junta still guarded

Ban's trip to Burma and Thailand to knock down barriers to cyclone aid resulted in offers of more than $100 million in foreign assistance Sunday at an international conference in Rangoon. But foreign donors warned the ruling Burmese regime they will not fully open their wallets until they are given access to the hardest-hit areas.

"We have seen that the Myanmar government is moving fast to implement their commitment. My sincere hope is that they will honour their commitment — that we have to see," Ban told reporters before leaving Bangkok for New York on Sunday night.

Ban said he would remain "fully, continuously and personally engaged" in the crisis and return to Burma "before long."

Issuing of visas to aid workers hit an immediate snag Monday when the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok closed down its visa section after a fire ripped through part of its main building.

Embassy officials blamed an electrical short-circuit for the fire, which destroyed the building's second floor.

Despite their promises to Ban, Burmese leaders — and potential donors — continued to be cautious about providing aid.

Burma's Prime Minister Lt.-Gen. Thein Sein said Sunday international aid "with no strings attached" was welcome. But he hedged on the sensitive issue of direct access, saying only civilian vessels could take part in the aid operation and that they would have to go through Rangoon.

France 'particularly shocked' by aid ban

"Relief supplies can be transported by land, air or sea," he said. "But if relief supplies have to be transported by water, civilian vessels can come in through Yangon [Rangoon] port."

That seemed to veto plans for U.S., British and French warships loaded with humanitarian supplies to join in the relief operation. The ships have been off Burma's coast for more than a week, awaiting permission to land their cargoes directly in affected areas.

France said Sunday it would unload the 1,000 tonnes of aid on its ship, the Mistral, in Phuket, Thailand. The aid, which amounts to 30 planeloads of supplies, would then be taken to the stricken areas of Burma by the World Food Program and distributed by non-governmental organizations.

The French government said it is "particularly shocked" by the refusal to accept the aid directly, but believes in the "responsibility to protect" the needy.

Burma's leaders have virtually barred foreign aid workers and international agencies from the delta because they fear a large influx of foreigners could lead to political interference in their internal affairs.

The junta is also hesitant to have its people see aid arriving directly from countries like the United States, which it has long treated as a hostile power seeking to invade or colonize.

In a press statement Monday, the International Red Cross said at least 1.5 million people, many of them hungry and ailing, remained homeless in the rain-swept delta.

"It remains a race against the clock and the logistical challenges grow with the rain. What reaches the cyclone-devastated areas can't get there fast enough, and what does get through is not enough," the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

With files from the Associated Press