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UN chief to press Myanmar junta boss on aid

UN chief Ban Ki-moon flew into army-ruled Myanmar's remote new capital for a rare audience with junta supremo Than Shwe to press him to accept more aid for 2.4 million people left destitute by Cyclone Nargis.

It is impossible to say whether his meeting with the 75-year-old Senior General in Naypyidaw, 250 miles north of Yangon, will soften a military administration that remains deeply suspicious of the outside world and its offers of help.

Ban saw the extent of the destruction for himself on Thursday, flying in a helicopter over flooded rice fields and destroyed homes in the Irrawaddy Delta, which bore the brunt of the May 2 storm and its 12 foot (3.5 meter) sea surge.

The official toll is nearly 134,000 people dead or missing, making Nargis one of the worst cyclones to hit Asia. Three weeks on, aid is still only trickling in to the delta due to the junta's restrictions on foreign relief operations.

Unless the generals open their doors, thousands more people could die of hunger and disease, disaster experts say.

“I am so sorry, but don't lose your hope,” Ban told one woman as he peered into a blue tent at the Kyondah relief camp 75 km south of Yangon.

“The United Nations is here to help you. The whole world is trying to help Myanmar.”

Government officials told him the situation was under control, reiterating the line in army-controlled media that the immediate emergency relief phase of the disaster was over and it was now time to look to reconstruction.

“All efforts are being made towards the relief of the victims and for the country to soon return to normal,” Energy Minister Brigadier General Lun Thi told Ban at the camp, the same one diplomats were shown at the weekend.

The junta has accepted relief flights into Yangon from many countries, including the United States, its fiercest critic, but has largely kept Western disaster experts out of the delta.

However, it has allowed a senior US aid official on a 3-day government tour of the area. Washington said the permission was an “opening, but it is not sufficient.”

Medical teams from India, China, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh are working in the delta along with thousands of local medics and other volunteers, state media said.

Myanmar television also broadcast footage of the official tour, with Ban shaking hands and talking to survivors.

Prime Minister Thein Sein was quoted as saying “politics should not be intertwined with humanitarian needs” and the government was not impeding the flow of aid.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said there were no strings attached to offers of assistance.

“This is a humanitarian response being made to a natural disaster that is being turned into a man-made catastrophe. We are trying to send aid there for purely humanitarian purposes. There is no ulterior motive,” Miliband said on a trip with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in California.

The UN and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a part, are preparing for a donor-pledging conference in Yangon on Sunday.

However, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said countries would be reluctant to commit money until they are allowed in to assess the damage for themselves.

“The shared concern is we don't know the extent of the damage. We don't know the number of the dead, the number of the missing or the number of the displaced,” said Surin, who was told by officials that Myanmar needed $11 billion.

Ban's visit was the talk of Yangon for people desperate for political change after 46 years of unbroken military rule - especially given the UN's abortive attempts to mediate after September's bloody crackdown on protests led by Buddhist monks.

But deep down people accepted his visit would not stray from its humanitarian mission.

“I don't think we can expect much out of his visit because the U.N. has not been able to influence the regime at all concerning our situation,” lawyer Nyunt Aung said.

Sunday's conference coincides with the expiry of the latest year-long detention order imposed on opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, now under continuous house arrest for five years. Nobody expects her to be released. (Reuters)