U.N. Sends Top Envoy to Plead With Burma Over Aid

A top U.N envoy traveled to Burma on Sunday to plead with the junta to accept more international aid for its cyclone survivors, amid mounting fears of starvation deaths, especially among children.

John Holmes, undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, was received at the airport Sunday by Deputy Foreign Minister Kyaw Thu.

The visit came as world leaders expressed outrage at the handling of the disaster by the isolationist military regime, which insists it is managing the relief operations on its own despite evidence that some 2.5 million survivors are living in misery.

The junta says relief operations are over and it is time to begin reconstruction of Burma, also called Myanmar.

Junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe has refused to take telephone calls from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and has not responded to his two letters. Holmes is to deliver a third letter.

He will try to "find out what's really going on the ground, to get a much better picture of how the response is going and ... to see how much we can help them scale up this response," said Amanda Pitt, a United Nations spokeswoman in Bangkok, Thailand.

About 78,000 people were killed and 56,000 remain missing, according to the government count. Aid agencies, however, say the death toll from the May 2-3 cyclone could be 128,000.

They say some 2.5 million survivors are in desperate need of help -- food, shelter from intermittent monsoon rains, medicines, clean drinking water and sanitation.

A U.N. situation report said Saturday that emergency relief from the international community had reached an estimated 500,000 people only.

The junta has barred foreign aid experts, including the U.N.'s international staff, from traveling to the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta.

U.N. and other major international aid agencies such as World Vision have been forced to depend on their limited local Myanmar staff to distribute aid in Irrawaddy, but they say a much greater effort is needed if more diseases and deaths are to be prevented.

Save the Children, a global aid agency, said Sunday that thousands of young children face starvation without quick food aid.

"We are extremely worried that many children in the affected areas are now suffering from severe acute malnourishment, the most serious level of hunger," said Jasmine Whitbread, who heads the agency's operation in Britain. "When people reach this stage, they can die in a matter of days."

The U.N. report said the ruling generals were even forbidding the import of communications equipment, hampering already difficult contact among relief agencies.

The government has ordered that all equipment used by foreign agencies must be purchased through Burma's Ministry of Posts and Communications -- with a maximum of 10 telephones per agency -- for $1,500 each. Importing equipment is not allowed.

The military regime's xenophobia stems from the fear that allowing foreign aid workers to mingle with ordinary people will embolden them to rebel against 46 years of authoritarian rule.

In a bid to project itself as the savior of the people, the government has used state media to boast that the government was distributing assistance promptly and efficiently to the affected areas.

State-run radio said the government has so far spent about $2 million for relief work and has received millions of dollars worth of relief supplies from local and international donors.