First Round of Int'l Aid Reaches Myanmar

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International aid began making its way into Myanmar, Tuesday, as the death toll in the country continued to soar.

Foreign help, however, still failed to reached the Irrawaddy delta, where more than 22,000 people are confirmed dead and nearly twice as many are still missing.

Cyclone Nargis hit the Southeast Asian nation Saturday, and is the countries deadliest storm on record. Up to 1 million people may still be homeless.

"From the reports we are getting, entire villages have been flattened and the final death toll may be huge," said Mac Pieczowski, who heads the International Organization for Migration office in Yangon.

Several foreign countries immediately mobilized to send aid, but many aid groups had to wait for visa clearance to get in.

For the first time since the cyclone hit, large numbers of soldiers were also seen helping residents in clearing roads, Tuesday.

Accepting International Help

The first round of International aid began with 800 tons of food for Myanmar's homeless, the U.N.'s World Food Program said.

Fears continue to rise over the lack of food and water in the delta region, where nearly a quarter of the country's 57 million people live.

The area's conditions also increase the risk of disease.

"Our biggest fear is that the aftermath could be more lethal than the storm itself," said Caryl Stern, who heads the U.N. Children's Fund in the United States.

Operation Blessing International has teamed up with German-based medical nonprofit organization Humedica in a medical outreach to help cyclone victims.

A team of Humedica doctors arrived in Bangkok last night were still waiting approval of visas as of Tuesday night.

"We are anxious to send water purification systems and more doctors and medical support," Bill Horan, president of OBI, said. He added that OBI partners "are standing ready to assist OBI efforts as soon as we get green light to enter the country and permission to clear customs with water purification systems, medicine and relief supplies,."

Myanmar's ruling generals have long closely controlled their activities of international organizations. Many believe the ruling military junta fears unwanted outside influence. They also fear that the people would credit foreign aid for their recovery, rather than the government.

Several agencies, including the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, have limited their presence as a consequence. However, keeping out international aid could have a backfire.

President Bush said Tuesday that the U.S. will send more than $3 million to help cyclone victims, up from an initial emergency contribution of $250,000 announced yesterday.

"We're prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation. But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country," he said.

Bush made the remarks during a ceremony awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Burmese democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Iron Rule in Myanmar

The cyclone came only a week ahead of a key referendum on a constitution that Myanmar's military leaders hoped would go smoothly in its favor. But the disaster could stir the already tense political situation.

Saturday's vote would be delayed until May 24 in 40 of 45 in the areas hardest hit by the storm, state radio reported. But in other non-affected areas, balloting would proceed.

That decision drew swift criticism from those who question the credibility of such a vote.

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. Its government has been widely criticized for suppression of pro-democracy parties such as the one led by Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the past 18 years.

Source: The Associated Press

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