France lashes out at Burma rulers over cyclone aid delays

France's UN ambassador warned Friday the continued refusal by Burma's military rulers to allow aid to be delivered to people in need or in danger "could lead to a true crime against humanity."

Military regime says nearly 78,000 are dead; outside estimates are higher

France's UN ambassador warned Friday that continued refusal by Burma's military rulers to allow international aid to be delivered to people in need or in danger "could lead to a true crime against humanity."

Jean-Maurice Ripert's comments came ahead of an anticipated tour by foreign diplomats of Burma's cyclone-hit Irrawaddy Delta, and on the same day Burmese state television announced government estimates on the death toll have nearly doubled.

The state television broadcast said almost 78,000 people have died and almost 56,000 others are missing since the May 2-3 cyclone turned the delta into a quagmire of shattered villages and squalid camps.

The country's secretive military regime previously said 43,318 were dead and nearly 28,000 were missing. The Red Cross fears the death toll may be as high as 128,000; the United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 died.

Speaking Friday at the United Nations General Assembly, Ripert criticized the military junta for refusing to allow a French navy ship with about 1,360 tonnes of aid for victims, and angrily rejected a charge by Burma's UN ambassador that the vessel was a "warship.

"I had to intervene to explain that it's not true," Ripert said. "It's not a warship, it's a ship on which we have 1,500 tons [about 1,360 tonnes] of food, drugs, medications. We have small boats which could allow us to go through the delta to most of the regions where no one has accessed yet. We have small helicopters to drop food, and we have doctors.

"As of today, the government of Myanmar [Burma] refused to the French the authorization of using this ship, and asked to us to convey the material through airlift in Rangoon, which of course is a nonsense," he added. "This is purely unacceptable."

Regime warns against hoarding

Meanwhile, the CBC's Stephen Puddicombe reports that the regime has repeated its public warnings against hoarding.

On Burmese national radio Friday morning, the government again urged citizens to inform on anyone they see hoarding or selling relief supplies. It has threatened unspecified legal sanctions for those who do so.

Puddicombe, reporting from neighbouring Thailand, noted that Burma's military has itself come under suspicion of diverting relief supplies, including high-protein biscuits intended for starving people. Many aid groups say they have heard such reports but have no proof of theft, he said.

Tour will take place Saturday

In Rangoon, U.S. diplomat Shari Villarosa told the Associated Press that the Foreign Ministry will take a group of diplomats into the delta on Saturday. Villarosa is the chargé d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in the Burmese capital.

It was not clear how much access the diplomats will have outside the controlled tour, but this would be their first look at the damage and the government's much-criticized relief delivery effort, two weeks after the cyclone.

Also Friday, the UN said restrictions imposed by the regime have left aid agencies largely in the dark about the the situation in Burma, also known as Myanmar, AP reported.

John Holmes, UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, will go to Burma on Sunday to try to convince junta leaders to grant more access for UN relief workers and massively scale up aid efforts, said Amanda Pitt, a UN spokeswoman in Bangkok.

Information scarce, UN says

Officials of various UN agencies called a news conference in Bangkok to give an update on their relief operations. The most basic information was missing, they said, from the number of orphans to the extent of diseases and the number of refugee camps.

They also couldn't say whether all survivors are in camps, on the move or still living in destroyed villages in the hardest hit Irrawaddy Delta, an area the size of Austria.

"The risk increases with each passing day," Pitt said, referring to the vulnerability of survivors to outbreaks of disease and other problems.

With files from the Associated Press