U.N. chief: Myanmar approves helicopters

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

YANGON, Myanmar -- The United Nations has received permission from Myanmar to use nine helicopters from the World Food Program to ferry relief supplies to stranded cyclone victims, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday as he warned that relief efforts are at a "critical moment."

"We have received government permission to operate nine WFP helicopters, which will allow us to reach areas that have so far been largely inaccessible," Ban told reporters in New York before departing on a trip to Myanmar.

His announcement was not immediately confirmed by officials of Myanmar's military government.

"I believe further similar moves will follow, including expediting the visas of [foreign] relief workers seeking to enter the country," Ban said. "I'm confident that emergency relief efforts can be scaled up quickly."

The junta appears to be slowly relenting to foreign pressure to accept more outside help, but even foreign aid workers already in the country are still banned from the most devastated areas. The U.N. said only a fraction of survivors had received any international assistance.

The official death toll stood at about 78,000, with 56,000 more people missing. Conditions in the low-lying Irrawaddy River delta remained precarious, with survivors facing disease, malnutrition and exposure to the elements.

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