RANGOON, Burma – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the junta in Burma, also known as Myanmar, agreed Friday to allow all aid workers into the country after weeks of refusing access to foreign relief experts seeking to help cyclone survivors.
Ban said the government also agreed to let in aid "via civilian ships and small boats," wording suggesting that U.S., British and French warships waiting off Burma's coast with relief supplies would not be allowed to dock.
Burma's military government did not immediately confirm the agreement and there was no indication how quickly it would be take effect.
"This agreement can produce results. And the implementation will be the key," Ban said at a news conference after returning to Rangoon, the country's biggest city, from a two-hour meeting in the capital, Naypyitaw, with Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the country's most powerful figure.
"I believe they will honor their promise," Ban said.
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A senior U.N. official present at the meeting said Than Shwe gave the green light for foreigners to work in the hardest-hit region, the Irrawaddy Delta, which has been virtually off-limits to them.
Ban said, without elaborating, that he was told foreign aid workers would be given "unhindered access to affected areas" and that they would be allowed in regardless of nationality.
"He (Than Shwe) has taken a flexible position on that issue that until now has been an obstacle to organizing ... coordinated and full effective international aid, assistance and cooperation," Ban said.
Burma's military government has until now refused to allow an unimpeded influx of foreign aid and experts to reach survivors of Cyclone Nargis. While granting an increasing number of visas to foreign staffers, the regime barred all but a handful of them from the delta.
At least 78,000 people were killed and another 56,000 are missing while some 2.5 million survivors are at risk from disease, starvation and exposure to monsoon rains.
"I urged him that it would be crucially important for him to allow aid workers as swiftly as possible and all these aid relief items also be delivered to the needy people as soon as possible," Ban said.
Than Shwe, he said, had also agreed to make Rangoon the logistics hub of the aid operation, which Ban called "an important development."
In Geneva, international aid agencies said they were ready to step up relief efforts as soon as they learn the "practical details" of the country's new commitment.
"I cannot give you a precise figure for the aid workers who are supposed to come in, but we would like to get more experts on board," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned that hundreds of thousands of people in remote areas of the delta have insufficient food, and said prices for rice, cooking oil and other basics had doubled throughout the country.
Only a "very narrow window of opportunity" remains to provide seeds and other material to farmers before the rice planting season upon which millions depend begins in a few weeks, the agency said. It said that half the cattle and buffaloes in 10 townships surveyed had perished during the storms.
"This is a significant step forward, and could be a turning point in the aid response," said Brian Agland, who heads the U.S.-based aid group CARE in Burma. "We welcome the agreement."
The 76-year-old Than Shwe — reclusive, superstitious and known as "the bulldog" for his stubbornness — had refused to answer Ban's calls from New York or to answer two letters sent to him by the secretary-general.
But as Ban's visit proceeded, the regime appeared to ease some of its restrictions on foreigners.
France-based Doctors Without Borders said it now had some foreign staffers working in four areas of the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta, which had previously been virtually off limits to non-Burma relief workers.
A second French cargo plane loaded with 40 tons of relief supplies was due to land Friday in Rangoon, while Canada said it would lend its biggest military aircraft, a C-17 cargo lifter, to deliver U.N. World Food Program helicopters to Burma.
The regime had earlier given the U.N. agency a green-light to use 10 helicopters to fly emergency aid to stranded victims.
Ban witnessed some of the cyclone's devastation during a carefully choreographed tour Thursday. Ban's firsthand look at the devastation wrought by the storm left the secretary-general shaken, even though the areas to which he was taken were far from the worst-hit.
Burma's military regime has been eager to show that it has the relief effort under control, despite spurning the help of foreign disaster experts, and has trotted out officials to give statistics-laden lectures to make the point.
But the U.N. estimates that aid has reached only about 25 percent of those in need.
Back in Rangoon, Ban paid a private visit to the mausoleum of former U.N. Secretary-General U Thant. The Burma-born U Thant, who had the job from 1961-1971, was the last secretary-general to visit the country in 1961.
It was not known whether Ban discussed the fate of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose latest period of detention expires Monday. A string of U.N. envoys have in the past failed to spring the Nobel Peace Prize laureate from house arrest, confronting a junta that has proved virtually impervious to outside pressure.