Efforts to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS in Burma have been hit because an international organization funding a five-year assistance program is pulling out, citing restrictions by the military government. Efforts are under way to find alternative sources of financing and restore help for Burma's AIDS sufferers.

The Global Fund's termination of the five-year, $98 million program, effective Thursday, comes against the backdrop of a spread in HIV/AIDS in Burma. The United Nations estimates more than 600,000 people there carry the virus.

The Global Fund allocates public and private contributions in the fight against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and works closely with U.N. agencies.

U.N. officials in Rangoon have blamed pressure from U.S. pro-democracy groups for the Global Fund's decision to withdraw from Burma.

Announcing the pullout in August, the Global Fund cited the military government's restrictions and procurement procedures, which the organization says breached commitments to provide unencumbered countrywide access.

U.N. human rights investigator Paulo Pinheiro recently criticized the Global Fund for withdrawing during what he calls a "humanitarian emergency".

"Humanitarian aid cannot be hostage to political agendas," said Mr. Pinheiro. "It was most unfortunate, most regrettable and wrong, the decision of the Global Fund to leave Myanmar. Our basic concern is the population. We have to provide assistance. And a lot of people will die because of this wrong decision."

Brian Williams, Rangoon representative of the U.N. Aids program, says Burma's victims should not be penalized because of the government's actions.

"International organizations have demonstrated some reluctance to engage in Myanmar," noted Mr. Williams. "We believe that the people of Myanmar deserve and have rights to, from a rights-based approach, to assistance, both prevention services and treatment services for those who are HIV positive."

The infection rate among pregnant women is now above one percent in Burma, an indication, U.N. officials say, that AIDS is moving into the general population from high-risk groups such as sex workers and intravenous drug users.

U.N. officials say the Global Fund's pullout means 5,000 patients will miss out on anti-retroviral treatment. Lack of funding will also hit other efforts such as condom distribution and HIV testing programs.

But the chairman of the U.N. Theme Group on HIV/AIDS in Burma, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, says other international donors are trying to fund the shortfall.

"Within the donor community it became a kind of realization that we need to perhaps look for alternatives," said Mr. Lemahieu. "And for that part we see a firmer stand now from several European Union countries, including the European Commission, together with Australia, Japan."

Burma's military government, facing international criticism over its human rights record, is said to be reassessing restrictions on international aid organizations, a move which AIDS support groups say is positive and needs to be encouraged.