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First UN Land Convoy Goes to Burma

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says it has sent the first UN convoy of aid overland into Burma, and a planeload of shelter supplies has been flown in from Dubai. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The UN refugee agency says the two-truck convoy was carrying more than 20 tons of tents and plastic sheets. It says these goods will be enough for 10,000 people made homeless by the disastrous cyclone that hit Burma. An estimated one million people have had their homes destroyed by Cyclone Nargis.

UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis tells VOA, the overland journey from Thailand into Burma, also known as Myanmar, was long and difficult.

"This is the first positive step in getting our aid materials into Myanmar," she said. "In one day, we really got stuff going in by air and aid supplies going in from land convoys. So, we know that these two routes are now operating for us and, I think, that is always a relief when you are trying to, for a week to make it happen."

Pagonis says the goods could have been delayed as customs posts on both sides of the border are closed on weekends. But, she says the UNHCR negotiated with government officials in Thailand and Burma to keep the posts open to allow the supplies to enter Burma.

In the end, she says, the operation went off smoothly.

"It took seven minutes to go through procedures," she added. "We arrived when the convoy came with a police escort on the Thai side and crossed about 1:00 o'clock local time, and seven minutes later it was on the other side. So, there was just a brief exchange of formalities. Of course there was a lot of work that went on to make sure that this all did run smoothly. We had a lot of cooperation from border officials on both sides of the Thai and the Myanmar sides. They knew what was happening. Everybody was prepared and it went off without a hitch."

The supplies will be handed over to the Disaster Management Committee to be distributed under UNHCR monitoring.

Pagonis says there are no plans for future land convoys. But, in any emergency situation, she says it is useful to have several routes established. She says the airlift of 33 tons of supplies that left Dubai on Saturday is the first of three planned flights.

She says two other flights carrying urgently needed shelter supplies are expected to leave early next week. And other aid shipments will go by sea.