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Burma Tells UN Chief It Will Allow All Relief Workers Into Cyclone-Hit Areas

Burma's military junta has agreed to allow relief workers of all nationalities to enter the country to help victims of Cyclone Nargis. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says Burmese leader General Than Shwe made the concession during a meeting on Friday, nearly three weeks after the storm hit, killing at least 78,000 people. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.

The U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met with Burmese leader General Than Shwe at the capital, Naypiyidaw, on Friday. After two hours, the U.N. chief emerged saying it had been a good meeting.

"He has agreed to allow all the aid workers, regardless of nationality. He has taken quite a flexible position on this matter," Ban said.

When asked whether this was a breakthrough, Secretary General Ban said he thought so.

Until now, Burma's reclusive military leadership has refused to allow large numbers of international relief workers to enter the country and insisted that the military authorities be the ones to distribute aid.

The generals' concession comes as Burma prepares to host a donors' conference Sunday in which Southeast Asian nations will be asked to donate money for relief efforts.

Three weeks after the storm hit, the help brought by relief workers may be too late for many of the victims. Tens of thousands of dead and thousands more are still missing in the disaster. It remains unclear when the workers will be allowed to enter. Many have been waiting for visas in Bangkok for weeks.

The Burmese government until now has only allowed a few international humanitarian workers into the country. Aid shipments have been restricted to arriving in the main city, hundreds of kilometers from the hardest-hit zones.

U.N. officials say their understanding of the agreement Friday is that it includes allowing aid workers into the Irawaddy Delta, the area hardest hit by the cyclone. The officials quote Burmese leaders as saying they do not oppose the relief workers' presence as long as they are genuine humanitarian workers and it is clear that they are going into Burma strictly to do relief work.

Officials estimate more than two million people are suffering for lack of clean water, food, and medical treatment.

The United States, Britain, and France have all positioned ships off the Burmese coast and offered to rush in relief supplies to the hardest-hit areas of the Irawaddy Delta, but Burma's government has refused them entry.

The U.N. secretary-g eneral arrived in Burma on Thursday and got an official tour of some of the devastation, but critics say officials kept him away from some of the worst-hit areas - including places where victims have yet to receive any aid whatsoever.

On Sunday, Ban is scheduled to attend a donor-pledging conference in Rangoon among U.N. officials and representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The grouping's Secretary-General, Surin Pitsuwan, on Friday said members might be reluctant to send money to Burma unless they are sure the process will be transparent. He said the amount donated will depend on whether they are confident that they will get access, a chance to participate, and verify how the aid efforts are carried out.