Myanmar finally lets in large aid flights

But military regime refuses U.S. offer to help cyclone victims

Published: Friday, May 9 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar's military regime allowed in the first major international aid shipment Thursday, but it snubbed a U.S. offer to help cyclone victims struggling to recover from a tragedy of unimaginable scale.

Five days after the storm, the junta indicated early today that it wants foreign relief but not foreign workers to deliver food, water and medicine to survivors amid fears the death toll could hit 100,000.

The Foreign Ministry said that it had given priority to receiving foreign aid but was using its own nationals to deliver it to stricken areas.

"We are in a long line of nations who are ready, willing and able to help, but also, of course, in a long line of nations the Burmese don't trust," U.S. Ambassador Eric John told reporters in Thailand's capital, Bangkok.

"It's more than frustrating. It's a tragedy," he said. Each day of delay means "a lot more people suffering," he said.

Myanmar's isolationist regime issued an appeal for international assistance after winds of 120 mph and a storm surge up to 15 feet high pounded the Irrawaddy delta Saturday.

But the junta has been accused of dragging its feet despite emerging reports of entire villages submerged, bodies floating in salty water and children ripped from their parents' arms.

"My children were crying all night. There is not enough food. There will be no food this evening," said Daw Thay, who took refuge in a monastery with her three children and her 99-year-old mother in a town 60 miles south of Yangon, the country's biggest city.

Daw Thay, 42, said monks were going without food so others could eat.

"We share what we have, but there isn't enough. So they (the monks) give the food to the children and the old people first," she said.

Juanita Vasquez, a UNICEF worker in Myanmar, said Thursday that the most dramatic scene she's witnessed were children who have lost or become separated from parents.

There are "more children roaming around this area looking for their families," she said in a telephone interview from Yangon. "We don't know at the moment how many have lost their parents and relatives."

In the swampy delta, a horrible stench rose from corpses and dead animals, bloated and floating in the water. Someone had written on a black asphalt road in Kongyangon village: "We are all in trouble. Please come help us." A few feet away, the desperate plea, "We're hungry."

Tired of waiting for help in Yangon, red-robed monks, other civilians and dozens of soldiers cleared piles of debris and toppled billboards from streets and cut branches off uprooted trees.

"They've started doing the cleanup themselves," Aye Chan Naing, chief editor of Democratic Voice of Burma, said as a light rain showered down. "They are volunteers."

Public transportation was slowly coming back to life in the city, with some trains operating, and cars formed lines three miles long to get rations of two gallons of gasoline.

The cyclone blew off the roof of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's dilapidated bungalow in Yangon and cut off its electricity, a neighbor said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. Suu Kyi, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for her pro-democracy activism, has been under house arrest for years.

More than 20,000 are known dead and tens of thousands more are listed as missing, and the U.N. estimates more than 1 million people are homeless in Myanmar, which also is known as Burma.

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