UN in stand-off over access to victims

The United Nations was in a tense stand-off with the Burmese junta last night over access to the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

The authorities accepted two planeloads of aid destined for 95,000 people but refused to release the supplies to UN workers for distribution. The junta announced that a US military plane would be allowed to land on Monday but made it clear that it was "not ready" to receive American aid workers.

The shipments of two World Food Programme (WFP) planes, which arrived yesterday in Rangoon, were confiscated. A government spokesman, Ye Htut, said the government had taken control of the aid in order to distribute it "without delay by its own labour to the affected areas".

In the week since the cyclone surged through the Irrawaddy delta, the isolated and paranoid junta has insisted it would accept emergency aid but has consistently rejected foreign aid workers, saying it is "not yet ready" to receive foreign rescue teams or journalists.

However, the WFP only distributes aid through its own workers or local non-government organisations, and the junta's refusal to release the food prompted a threat by frustrated officials from the UN agency to suspend its airlift. The WFP later issued a statement saying two relief flights would be sent in as planned today while "discussions continue with the government of Myanmar (Burma) on the distribution of the food" which was flown in yesterday.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, urged Burma last night to allow in the foreign teams "without hindrance".

Britain and the United States sought to dampen speculation that aid could be delivered to the cyclone victims without the junta's permission after a Bush-administration official said that an air drop of supplies was being considered. The official, Ky Luu, the director of the US office of foreign disaster assistance, was stamped on by the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, who said he could not imagine going in without government permission.

A UN official said the air drop proposal was not practical as it was the most expensive way to deliver aid, "and incredibly dangerous", requiring space to be cleared to avoid pallets killing people on the ground.

A Foreign Office spokesman said that "we are now trying to get consent by maximising the diplomatic pressure" and working with countries with influence over the junta such as China. But "time is working against us", the official added. The British ambassador to Burma, Mark Canning, said that access to the cyclone victims remained the most pressing problem for aid agencies.

"Things are almost certainly not going to get any better in the next few days," he warned.

He also said that while efforts were being made to concentrate on the humanitarian rather than political aspect of the crisis, it was becoming increasingly difficult to separate the two.

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