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ASEAN, UN Press Burma to Speed Up Assistance for Cyclone Victims

Burma has agreed to allow foreign medical teams into regions hit by Cyclone Nargis. The agreement, reached during a meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations, comes ahead of a visit to Burma this week by the United Nations secretary-general. Ron Corben reports from Bangkok.

After weeks of resisting requests to send in relief workers, Burma's military government has agreed to allow foreign medical teams to help victims of Cyclone Nargis.

The agreement came Monday at a meeting of Association of South East Asian Nations foreign ministers Monday in Singapore.

The foreign ministers also agreed to establish a mechanism to coordinate assistance to cyclone victims. Burma's delegation said losses from the storm, which hit May second and third, could be up to $10 billion.. The toll of dead and missing has topped 134,000.

Burma's reclusive government is under international pressure to allow more outside assistance. So far, very few foreign aid workers have been allowed in, and supply shipments have been a small fraction of what disaster experts say they should be.

Amanda Pitt, a spokeswoman for the United Nations relief operation, says the Singapore meeting comes after days of behind-the-scenes talks.

"We're doing everything we can to ensure that as much dialogue is ongoing with regional responders and regional partners," Pitt said. "That's one of the aims of today's foreign ministers meeting in Singapore."

The storm affected 2.4 million people, and 150,000 now live in evacuee settlements across the Irrawaddy Delta region.

There are fears of disease outbreaks - including cholera, among survivors, who lack shelter and sanitation. Aid agencies say their priorities are to provide housing, clean water and sanitation.

Human rights groups and several Western governments have accused Burma's military of neglecting the storm's victims.

A World Food Program spokesman, Marcus Prior, says some progress has been made in distributing food and other essentials.

"By the end of this weekend past we had despatched enough food now to feed over 250,000 people," Prior said. "About a week ago we were talking in terms of struggling to reach 20 percent (of those in need) and I would say now that we're probably reached just over 30 percent."

The ASEAN meeting comes just ahead of a visit to Burma by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He is expected to arrive Wednesday to meet with the country's leaders, before returning to Thailand to attend an international donor's meeting on Saturday. U.N. officials have said Burma's leader, General Than Shwe, has refused to take telephone calls from Mr. Ban.

It is not clear why the government has been reluctant to allow in aid. Burmese officials reportedly have said the aid was not needed.

Some experts on Burma's politics say the military may fear that foreign aid workers would try to undermine its rule. The United States, European Union and other governments have long had economic sanctions against Burma because of its human rights abuses.