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UN to Resume Aid Flights Despite Seizure of Supplies by Burmese Authorities

The World Food Program decided to send in two relief flights as planned on Saturday, despite the government of Burma's refusal to distribute the food that was flown in by WFP on Friday. Meanwhile, the United Nations says the official death toll is just over 22,000, with more than 40,000 still missing. The UN says this figure is likely to rise dramatically if food, clean drinking water, shelter and emergency health supplies are not forthcoming. For VOA, Lisa Schlein files from Geneva.

While negotiations continue between the World Food Program and Burma's military rulers who have seized two planeloads of food and critical equipment, the WFP announced it will resume aid flights to Burma on Saturday.

Earlier, officials with the U.N'.s World Food Program said they would suspend flights after two shipments to Burma were impounded. The confiscated goods include 38 tons of high-energy biscuits, enough to feed tens of thousands of hungry people.

WFP spokeswoman, Christiane Berthiaume, tells VOA, countless numbers of people have received no food or other assistance since Cyclone Nargis hit the country early this week.

"If things do not pick up and if we cannot bring relief and staff inside the country as quickly as possible, there will be more people in need of aid and threatened by hunger, by diseases, lack of water, whatever," said Berthiaume.

UN officials say Burma's reluctance to allow foreign aid workers into the country is also hampering relief efforts. The United Nations reportedly has asked Burmese authorities for some one hundred visas. Few have been granted.

Spokeswoman for the UN agency that coordinates Humanitarian Assistance, Elizabeth Byrs, says two of her agency's experts were allowed to enter the country on Thursday.

"A certain number of visas are on their way," she said. "We never have been refused visas. This is important, but we are still waiting for more. It is essential that our coordination experts go into the country in order to supplement the efforts of the government and of the UN country team which is already overstretched."

The World Food Program employs 10 international staff and 217 local members in Burma. The WFP's Berthiaume says the agency needs to bring in another 16 international experts to coordinate the aid effort.