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Myanmar approves UN aid flight

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

GENEVA —  The international relief effort for hundreds of thousands of Myanmar cyclone victims picked up speed Wednesday as India dispatched two planeloads of aid and Myanmar authorized the United Nations to send its own air shipment, officials said.

But the Myanmar government's slowness in issuing visas to aid workers appeared to remain a problem.

Aid workers on the ground have already begun distributing food and other supplies to victims of the weekend's devastating storm, which killed more than 22,000 people and left 41,000 more missing.

India sent two air force planes carrying about 8.8 U.S. tons (8 metric tons) of relief supplies, including tents and medicine, according to the Defense Ministry.

They follow two Indian navy ships that left Tuesday for Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, with similar supplies, said Navtej Sarna, the spokesman for India's External Affairs Ministry.

Indonesia, the country worst hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, said Wednesday it would soon send emergency aid worth $1 million. The tsunami killed more than 160,000 people in Indonesia's Aceh province.

Two military planes carrying food, medicine, blankets and 55 relief workers will leave Thursday, said Maj. Gen. Syamsul Maarif, chief of Indonesia's disaster management coordination agency.

"The tragedy has reminded the president of the December 2004 tsunami," said a spokesman for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

"He decided Indonesia must help Myanmar," said the spokesman, Dino Pati Djalal.

Elisabeth Byrs, Geneva spokeswoman for U.N. relief efforts, said she expected the United Nations cargo plane would go from Brindisi, Italy, to Myanmar later Wednesday, but that it is still unclear where it will land in Myanmar.

"We are working on that," Byrs said.

She said U.N. officials hoped to have U.N. experts accompany the flight, but that they were still waiting for Myanmar authorities to grant them permission.

Byrs said the U.N. flight was approved Tuesday in a meeting between U.N. and Myanmar officials in New York.

"We hope this spirit of openness will continue," Byrs said.

U.N. staff in Bangkok, Thailand, also are awaiting approval of their visas so they can go to Myanmar and assess damage.

Other countries and organizations are also mounting their own relief efforts.

The U.N.'s World Food Program said Tuesday it had reached the first victims with food aid in Yangon but that most of the estimated 1 million people left homeless by the devastating cyclone were still cut off by flooding and road damage in many coastal areas.

Chris Kaye, WFP's director for Myanmar, said additional truckloads of food would be dispatched Wednesday to Labutta township, the area hardest hit by the cyclone.

Many countries have announced donations of up to several million dollars each, and the Red Cross and other aid organizations have been organizing shipments to the country.

The national Red Cross staff and 18,000 volunteers have been handing out plastic sheets, drinking water, insecticide-treated bed nets and clothes, said Eric Porterfield, a spokesman for the international Red Cross.

Tropical Cyclone Nargis pounded the Southeast Asian country over the weekend with winds of up to 120 mph (195 kph), floods and high tidal waves.

Australia announced it will give $3 million (US$2.84 million) in aid.

China's Red Cross said it was making preparations to ensure a smooth delivery of the supplies.

"We're watching the developments in Myanmar very closely," said Fan Ling, assistant to the relief division chief at the provincial Red Cross. Yunnan province borders Myanmar.

China had pledged on Tuesday to provide $1 million in cash and relief supplies to its southern neighbor as soon as possible.

___

Associated Press writers in Asian bureaus contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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