Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Friday that the death toll from Cyclone Nargis will increase dramatically unless the military government of Burma, also known as Myanmar, allows more aid into the country to help victims at risk of disease.
As the international community ramped up pressure on the government to allow foreign aid to devestated areas, the military junta shocked aid agencies by declaring the relief effort in the country is over, the Times of London reported.
"We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going onto the second phase, the rebuilding stage," the Times of London quoted Burmese Prime Minister, Thein Sein.
France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert criticized the junta Friday for refusing to allow a French Navy ship with 1,500 tons of food, drugs and medicine to use small boats to deliver aid to devastated regions in the Irrawaddy delta.
"This is purely unacceptable," he said, warning that refusing to allow aid to be delivered to people in need or in danger "could lead to a true crime against humanity if we go on like that."
The ruling junta also set up a tightening ring of security around Yangon Friday, blocking aid workers, foreign diplomats and journalists from reaching cyclone-battered regions where millions need food and medicine.
New roadblocks manned by armed police have sprung up around Burma's largest city. Authorities at the checkpoints take down passport information and license plate numbers and sometimes interrogate drivers and their foreign passengers before ordering them to return to Yangon.
"A circle has been drawn around Yangon and expats are confined there. While you are getting aid through, it's like getting it through a 3-inch pipe, not a 30-inch pipe," said Tim Costello, president of the aid agency World Vision-Australia, in Yangon.
Ban told the U.N. General Assembly that he was sending U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes this weekend to Burma. Holmes is to deliver a third letter attempting to establish contact with the country's leadership to discuss how the U.N. can assist the government's immediate and long-term relief effort.
"This morning I saw the latest official figures, which now estimate that 78,000 have died. Countless people are missing," he said. "This is a very tragic situation. ... Estimates of those at risk run as high as 2.5 million people."
"More than two weeks after the event, we are at a critical point," Ban warned.
"Unless more aid gets into the country — quickly — we face the risk of an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dramatically worsen today's crisis. I want to emphasize that this is not the time for politics. Our concern right now is to save lives — to help the government of Burma and its people," he said.
Ban also told representatives of the 192 U.N. member states that he hopes a meeting of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations on May 19 and a high-level pledging conference that he has suggested for May 24-25 will help to mobilize resources in response to the disaster in Burma — as was the case in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
The U.N. released the text of Ban's briefing to the closed-door meeting.
Ripert told reporters afterwards that he intervened after Ban's speech, saying he was "a little bit surprised" that the secretary-general had stuck "to the idea of convicing the authority of Burma to allow more food and more aid into Burma."
"He reported on absolutely no progress in the opening of the access to victims, so I had to make an intervention. I was interrputed after the first sentence by the ambassador of Burma who denounced the fact that France was sending ... a warship" to Burma, Ripert said.
Ripert said he explained that while the ship was operated by the French Navy, "it's not a warship, it's a ship on which we have 1,500 tons 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 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," Ripert said.
"We are still trying to convince the authority of Burma to authorize us to go there," he said.
"The ship will be in view of the delta, but in the international waters tomorrow (Saturday), and we still hope that they will not refuse that," Ripert said.
"Hundreds of thousands of lives are in jeopardy and we think that the primary responsibility of the government of Burma is to help and open the borders so that the international aid could come into the place," he said.
Ripert would not say whether France might try to deliver the aid without authorization.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.