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UN Chief Urges Burma to Accept Foreign Aid Workers, Relief Supplies

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is urging the government of Burma to speed the arrival of aid workers and relief supplies to the cyclone-devastated country. From United Nations headquarters in New York, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

In a statement Wednesday, Mr. Ban's office welcomed the news that some U.N. aid officials would be allowed into Burma on Thursday, but urged the military government to quickly open its borders to more aid workers and supplies.

U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes told reporters it would be helpful if Burma - also known as Myanmar - waived visa and customs requirements, at least in these early days of the disaster.

"It's been done in other circumstances," he said. "I think I mentioned it was done in the cases of the Iran and Pakistan earthquakes. It is not a universal practice but it makes life much easier, because the more you can reduce the bureaucratic obstacles, the quicker the aid can get in, the more likely you are to save lives and help people."

Burma's military government has come under international criticism for not issuing visas to aid workers, hindering relief efforts. But Holmes said the U.N. and some other agencies are making progress in persuading the government to issue more visas - although none have been issued yet.

"We are discussing that with the authorities," he said. "I think we are moving in the right direction, and I think we will continue to make progress because clearly we need to."

The U.N. has about 1,600 mostly local personnel in Burma, but many are not experts in disaster relief efforts. The U.N. hopes to send in additional staff to help the Burmese government coordinate the distribution of aid and to assess what will be the longer-term needs of the population.

Holmes said a U.N. disaster coordination team of four Asian nationals, who do not require visas, have clearance to fly to Burma on Thursday, but a fifth non-Asian team member is still awaiting a visa.

Burma's government says it will accept international aid, and Holmes said that offers totaling more than $30 million have poured in from more than two dozen countries.

Saturday's cyclone killed more than 22,000 people and left more than a million homeless. Some 42,000 others are still missing. Holmes warned that the death toll could rise significantly.