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UN Chief Heads to Burma

Before departing for cyclone-stricken Burma Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hopes to meet with government officials, neighboring leaders and relief coordinators to plan the way forward out of this crisis. Meanwhile, John Holmes, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs met Tuesday with Prime Minister Thein Sein and several other officials. From U.N. headquarters in New York, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

Mr. Ban said Burma is at a critical point. There is a functioning relief program in place, but it is reaching only a quarter of the people in need. He said he hopes improved U.N. and ASEAN coordination with the authorities in Burma (also known as Myanmar) will help scale up relief efforts quickly.

"My aim in going to Myanmar is to first of all, to demonstrate my sympathy to the people and government at this time of crisis and challenge, and to see for myself the situation on the ground, particularly in areas most affected by the disaster, unprecedented in Myanmar's history," he said.

The secretary-general said the devastation to the country is estimated at over $10 billion and that other factors, such as a not being able to plant the next harvest, could compound the crisis even further. The cyclone has already claimed over 78,000 lives.

"In this sense, the economic effects of the natural disaster that has struck Myanmar could be more severe and longer lasting than the 2004 tsunami," he noted.

Mr. Ban will be in Burma on Thursday and Friday. He plans to travel to some of the hardest hit areas, including the Irrawaddy Delta. He will go to Thailand on Saturday to meet with leaders there, then return to Yangon on Sunday to attend a joint U.N.-ASEAN international pledge conference for the cyclone victims.

The U.N. chief says he hopes to meet Burma's Senior General Than Shwe and other top government officials. He welcomed what he called the military regime's "recent flexibility" in deciding to allow Asian aid workers under ASEAN auspices into the country to oversee aid supplies and distribution, and said he believes similar moves will follow.

Diplomats, attending meetings at the U.N. in New York this week, welcomed Mr. Ban's trip.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad, said that for the secretary-general's trip to be successful he must focus on winning access for experts and supplies.

French Minister for Human Rights, Rama Yade, echoed that, saying she hopes after Mr. Ban's visit, there will be better access to the victims.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Sunday's international donor's conference is a landmark event that must produce real outcomes that will deliver aid to the people on the ground whose humanitarian situation is growing worse.