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UN Chief Criticizes Burma's 'Slow' Response to Cyclone


U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he is frustrated by the Burmese government's handling of the humanitarian crisis in the cyclone-devastated country. He is urging the military government to increase access for international relief efforts, warning that further delays could set the country back years. From United Nations headquarters in New York, VOA's Alex Villarreal has more.

Mr. Ban expressed his frustration with the pace of relief efforts in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

"Today is the 11th day since Typhoon Nargis hit Myanmar," he said. "I want to register my deep concern and immense frustration at the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis."

At a press conference, Mr. Ban said the official death toll reported by the Burmese government had climbed to almost 32,000 as of Monday, with more than 34,000 people missing, although international relief agencies report higher numbers. He said the situation has reached a critical point.

"Unless more aid gets into the country very quickly, we face an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dwarf today's crisis," he said. "I therefore call, in the most strenuous terms, on the Government of Myanmar to put its people's lives first. It must do all that it can to prevent this disaster from becoming even more serious."

Mr. Ban said the United Nations and its agencies are well-positioned to help with food, water and medical supplies, but that they need greater access and freedom of movement within the tightly controlled country.

He said the Burmese government continues to deny visas to most foreign aid workers, limiting relief assistance to fewer than a third of the estimated 1.5 million people at risk. U.N. Humanitarian Chief John Holmes said 34 visas have been granted to U.N. aid workers but many more are needed.

The secretary-general said he had spoken with regional governments to urge their cooperation with the United Nations to make both civil and military assets available, including planes, helicopters, trucks and boats.

"Handled properly, Myanmar can recover from this calamity," he said. "Handled poorly, it will become an even deeper crisis that will set back the country's people and its government for years."

Mr. Ban said he sent a second letter Monday to Burmese Senior General Than Swe after his repeated attempts to reach him by phone were unsuccessful.

He emphasized that the crisis should not be about politics but about saving lives, and warned that there is no more time to lose.

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