Burma asks for help as days of mourning announced

Burma's military regime has invited representatives of several countries to visit the cyclone-hit delta in an attempt to deflect criticism that it is mismanaging relief operations, diplomats said today.

Burma's embassies in various countries sent invitations to host governments, seeking at least three representatives from each country to visit the Irrawaddy delta, an Asian diplomat said.

The diplomat said the invitations asked the governments to send a cross-section of representatives, preferably from the government, aid agencies and private sector donors.

It was not clear how many countries had been invited or which ones were chosen. US diplomats said they have not received any invitation. Neighbouring countries, including friendly governments such as India, China and Thailand, are seen as the most likely.

Burma's military government has announced a three-day mourning period for victims of the cyclone, starting tomorrow.

State television announced that the national flag will be flown at half-mast during the mourning period.

The announcement came as it was confirmed today that the official death toll for the storm remains at about 78,000. Another 55,000 people are still missing.

The junta has faced international outrage for not allowing foreign aid experts to visit the delta to assess the damage from when Cyclone Nargis hit on May 2-3. It says it has handed the relief operations capably, declaring that it is now time for reconstruction.

But aid agencies say some 2.5 million survivors are living in miserable conditions without enough food, drinking water or proper shelter.

According to the new invitation, the representatives have been told to arrive in Rangoon on Wednesday and attend a briefing by the government on Thursday. They will be flown to the delta on Friday, said the diplomat.

Another diplomat confirmed the information, noting that Burma's junta appears to be opening "the door wider".

The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were disclosing information that has not been officially made public.

At least 134,000 people were killed or disappeared in the cyclone, the worst natural disaster Burma has had to deal with in recent memory.

The planned tour of foreign representative will take place two days before the junta hosts a meeting with donor countries in Rangoon.

Burma foreign minister Nyan Win told his Southeast Asian counterparts today in Singapore that the losses from the cyclone are estimated to exceed £5 billion.

The military regime allowed the UN humanitarian chief into the devastated Irrawaddy delta for a brief tour today.

But the United Nations said its foreign staff were still barred from the delta and described conditions there as "terrible" with hundreds of thousands of cyclone victims suffering from hunger, disease and lack of shelter.

John Holmes, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, flew by helicopter to the delta before returning to Rangoon, for a working lunch with international aid agencies, said a UN official.

British Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch-Brown hinted yesterday that a breakthrough may also be near that would allow foreign military ships to join the relief effort, but warnings grew of a potential second wave of deaths - this time among children who lack fresh water and proper shelter.

Southeast Asia's regional bloc will set up a task force to handle distribution of foreign aid to cyclone victims, Singapore's foreign minister said today.

An emergency meeting of foreign ministers from the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) decided that the bloc will work with the UN to hold a donor conference in Rangoon on May 25, minister George Yeo told reporters.

In a major concession after being slammed for blocking foreign aid, Burma also agreed to open its doors to medical teams from all Asean countries, Mr Yeo said.

Mr Yeo said the task force will consider specific offers of help.

"There will not be an uncontrolled entry of foreign personnel into Myanmar."

Suggestions that foreign ships carrying aid make a forced entry into Burma were also rejected.

"That will create unnecessary complication. It will only lead to more suffering for Myanmar people," he said.

France's foreign minister says the UN Security Council should force the country to allow passage of international aid to cyclone victims.

Foreign minister Bernard Kouchner says in an editorial in the daily Le Monde that the Security Council would be guilty of "cowardice" if it doesn't require Burma to accept the aid.

He says the Security Council has decided in the past to "intervene by force" to allow humanitarian aid in Kurdistan, Bosnia and Rwanda - and could do it again with Burma.

Mr Kouchner is a co-founder of aid group Doctors Without Borders. He has spoken out strongly about the junta's handling of aid for survivors of Cyclone Nargis.