U.N., groups rush to aid storm victims

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

GENEVA -- U.N. agencies and independent humanitarian groups rushed Monday to prepare assistance for victims of a devastating cyclone in Myanmar, while awaiting a formal go-ahead from the military regime in the Southeast Asian nation.

As the death toll climbed, Myanmar's isolationist government indicated a willingness to accept outside help. But details on how aid would be delivered were still to be worked out, said Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"The U.N. team has been activated and is ready to supplement the effort of the government in responding to this disaster as soon as they receive visas," Byrs said.

Some potential donors said governments and aid groups apparently would need individual approval to deliver supplies to Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.

The United States said the junta had so far refused to allow an American disaster team in to assess damage to follow up on an emergency U.S. contribution of $250,000.

"That is a barrier to us being able to move forward," deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey said. "We asked for permission, but the initial response from the government was that they were not inclined to let them in."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in announcing he was making $773,000 available to German aid groups to help Myanmar, urged the military government "to allow an effective aid operation and to work together with international aid organizations."

Relief agency representatives met in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, as well as in Bangkok, Thailand, to assess the damage and prepare supplies.

U.N. officials said hundreds of thousands of people urgently need safe drinking water and shelter. The international Red Cross said Myanmar's national Red Cross society was already distributing supplies.

"Widespread destruction is obviously making it more difficult to get aid to people who need it most," said Michael Annear, regional disaster management coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

In Geneva, Carsten Voelz, operations manager for CARE, said the humanitarian group would need more staff in Myanmar. "We have received a long list of things that are needed, including shelter material, food, water purification stuff, tarpaulins and things like that," he said.

"We are basically standing on our toes, ready to run," he added.

The United Nations Children's Fund said it was working with other agencies and Myanmar's Red Cross to determine how it could help.

"We have five teams assessing the situation on the ground at the moment," UNICEF spokeswoman Veronique Taveau said. "The situation seems to be quite difficult."

Byrs, the spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the World Food Program has 500 tons of food in Yangon and planned to bring in more supplies.

Voelz, of CARE, said the list of needed supplies "was put together in Bangkok based on our experience on what you need in situations like that. As humanitarian organizations we have worked in many cyclone situations, so we know what's needed."

Other groups preparing aid included Save the Children, Oxfam and World Vision.

The European Union said it was providing $3 million in urgent humanitarian aid for cyclone victims.

"With every hour that passes, the news coming out of Myanmar gets grimmer and grimmer," EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel said. "This is a terrible catastrophe that demands a quick and effective humanitarian response."

France's Foreign Ministry said it was sending $309,200 in emergency aid and that France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, was ready to travel to the country "to personally testify to France's solidarity with the people of Myanmar."

Israel also plans to send emergency aid once its ambassador compiles a list of what is needed, Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said.

Associated Press writers Eliane Engeler in Geneva, Matthew Lee in Washington, David Rising in Berlin and Paul Ames in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

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