KYONDAH, Myanmar – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was deeply disturbed by the destruction he saw on a tour Thursday of the cyclone-hit Irrawaddy Delta of Burma, also known as Myanmar, but stressed he was bringing a "message of hope" and a plea for the ruling junta to accept the world's help.
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Ban, the only foreign leader so far allowed into the disaster zone, was taken on a four-hour helicopter trip that touched down at several makeshift settlements for homeless survivors of the May 2-3 cyclone.
"I praise the will, resilience and the courage of the people of Myanmar. I bring a message of hope for the people of Myanmar," he said before embarking on the carefully orchestrated tour.
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He was first taken to a village called Kyondah, where 500 people huddled in blue tents.
"I'm very upset by what I've seen," he said after speaking to some camp residents.
The settlement — which has electricity and clean water — is somewhat of a showcase. It was also selected for visits by senior junta members and representatives of foreign embassies and international aid organizations last week.
The victims had cooking pots and blankets that appeared to be new.
Following Ban into the delta will be representatives of 29 nations, including Japan, Singapore and Thailand, whom the regime invited. The group, which includes government officials, aid officials and private-sector donors, will visit the region Friday.
Also Thursday, the first World Food Program helicopter was allowed to fly to Yangon to assist in relief operations in the delta. WFP officials in Bangkok confirmed 10 flights would be allowed beginning Thursday.
U.N. officials said they were discussing with Chinese authorities whether could tour the earthquake zone in Sichuan directly after leaving Burma. The trip, which has not been finalized, would give Ban the chance to compare the two countries' responses and urge China — Burma's biggest ally — to put its weight behind opening the flow of aid workers.
In a meeting earlier with Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Sein, Ban stressed international aid experts should be rushed in because the crisis was too much for Burma to handle alone, according to a U.N. official at the talks.
"The United Nations and all the international community stand ready to help to overcome the tragedy," Ban said.
Hardly any foreign relief workers have been allowed to work in the delta, despite having expertise that could save lives. A senior Red Cross official and foreign diplomats have been taken on carefully guided tours of the area.
Foreign relief agencies say many areas of the delta — and even some close to Yangon, the country's biggest city — have not received sufficient relief supplies.
Areas that Ban's helicopter flew over appeared to have been flattened by the storm. The choppers flew over seemingly endless fields that had been flooded, villages with destroyed houses, rivers swollen past their banks, people huddled on rooftops, in tent villages or taking to boats.
The Irrawaddy delta, the country's rice bowl, is where most of the 78,000 deaths from the cyclone occurred. Another 56,000 are listed as missing.
Ban tried to keep political issues off his plate.
Activists called on Ban to meet with detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and seek her release. The Nobel Peace prize laureate has been confined to her Yangon villa for most of the last 18 years and her current period of detention is due to expire Monday.
But such a meeting was not on Ban's official itinerary.
As Ban began his visit, foreign aid agencies stressed the need to quickly reach survivors suffering from disease, hunger and lack of shelter.
"In 30-plus years of humanitarian emergency work this is by far — by far — the largest case of emergency need we've ever seen," said Lionel Rosenblatt, president of U.S.-based Refugees International. "And yet, right offshore, right here in Thailand, we have the means to save these people."
In a meeting before Ban traveled to the delta, Thein Sein said the relief phase of the government's operation was ending and that the focus had shifted to reconstruction, according to the U.N. official at the talks who requested anonymity for reasons of protocol.
That assessment did not jibe with aid agencies' reports.
The latest report from the International Red Cross said rivers and ponds in the delta's Bogale area were full of corpses, and that many people in remote areas had received no aid.
Ban also visited Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda, regarded as the spiritual heart of the country, where he removed his shoes and socks and padded barefoot around the pagoda, handing the shrine's trustees a donation for cyclone victims.
Security for the secretary-general's visit was heavy, with dozens of armed riot police dotting the road from the airport into the city.
U.N. official Dan Baker said junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe would meet with Ban on Friday at Naypyitaw. Ban earlier said Than Shwe had refused to take his telephone calls and did not respond to two letters.
Yangon citizens did not seem optimistic that Ban's visit would make a difference.
"Don't just talk, you must take action," said Eain Daw Bar Tha, abbot of a Buddhist monastery on Yangon's outskirts. "The U.N. must directly help the people with helicopters to bring food, clothes and clean water to the really damaged places."
The U.N. says up to 2.5 million cyclone survivors face hunger, homelessness and potential outbreaks of deadly diseases, especially in the low-lying delta. Aid has reached only about 25 percent of them.