UN aid agencies waiting for Myanmar visas

Over 22,000 killed, 41,000 missing • Cyclone reduced Bogalay city to rubble: Minister

Geneva, May 6:

Even as the state television announced late today that more than 22,000 people have been killed and 41,000 left missing after a powerful cyclone in Myanmar last weekend, UN aid agencies are still waiting for visas for disaster response teams to enter the country.

“For the moment we have a five-member disaster assessment team on standby in Bangkok waiting for their visas, we expect them to be dispatched in the next hours,” said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The UN children’s fund (UNICEF) and the International Federation of Red Cross and

Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said they are also waiting for visas in order to help distribute urgently needed humanitarian supplies such as tents, water purification tablets and mosquito nets.

“The situation is extremely serious, we are very, very worried,” Byrs told journalists.

“One can say that the damage that has hit this region, especially the delta region, is at least equivalent to what we saw in the areas worst hit by the tsunami of 2004 which devastated Southeast Asia,” she added.

Myanmar’s state media estimates that at least 15,000 people died after Cyclone Nargis struck on May 2 and 3.

The country’s ruling generals, who normally screen foreign aid closely and keep a tight rein

on international relief organisations, made a rare appeal for help from abroad after the storm barrelled into the country overnight on Friday.

But a government minister said today that foreign aid teams wanting to come to the military-ruled nation after the devastating cyclone would have to negotiate with the regime to be granted access. “For expert teams from overseas to come here, they have to negotiate with the foreign ministry and our senior authorities,” Maung Maung Swe, the minister for social welfare, told a news conference in the country’s main city Yangon.

The cyclone destroyed 95 per cent of the homes in the city of Bogalay, where more than 10,000 people died, the minister Swe told reporters. Most of the 190,000 residents of Bogalay were homeless after the storm swept through the Irrawaddy river delta in the early hours of Saturday, Swe said.

“Ninety-five per cent of the houses in Bogalay were destroyed,” he said, adding that most of the damage was caused by the 3.6 metre storm surge that accompanied the cyclone.

“Many people were killed in a 12-foot tidal wave,” he said.

Bogalay sits in the heart of the Irrawaddy delta, which suffered the brunt of the storm’s fury when it ploughed ashore.

UN deplores lack of warning system:

GENEVA: The United Nations disaster reduction agency on Tuesday deplored the absence of an early warning system after Myanmar’s cyclone Nargis left 15,000 dead. “Looking at the number of deaths, it leads us to think that an early warning system had not been put in place,” Brigitte Leoni, spokeswoman for the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, told journalists in Geneva. “Obviously many people did not have time to evacuate and

find refuge in secured buildings,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Washington, US first lady Laura Bush also deplored the junta for failing to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm’s path. She said there would be a “substantial” amount of more aid if Myanmar’s ruling military junta agreed to accept US help. “I’m worried that they won’t even accept US aid,” she said. — AFP

Referendum unacceptable: NLD:

YANGON: Myanmar’s pro-democracy opposition said on Tuesday that it was “extremely unacceptable” for the ruling junta to go ahead with a constitutional referendum after the cyclone. The National League for Democracy (NLD) said in a statement that the regime had yet to provide meaningful assistance to hundreds of thousands of victims four days after the storm hit. “We haven’t seen effective assistance to storm victims, even though the authorities have declared (regions) as disaster zones,” the party said. “It is extremely unacceptable because they are giving priority to the constitution process without respecting the social difficulties faced by people during this disaster.” — AFP