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UN to resume flights despite junta bar

Yangon, May 9 (Reuters): The UN said it would resume aid flights to cyclone-struck Myanmar despite the military government’s seizure of food supplies today, and Washington said Myanmar had approved one US aid flight.

The UN World Food Programme initially said it was suspending flights after Myanmar impounded food shipments for survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which has killed tens of thousands and left perhaps 1.5 million needing food, water and shelter.

The reclusive Myanmar junta has had little direct contact with the outside world, but stated its preference through state-run media to accept “relief in cash and kind” but not foreign aid workers, many of whom are waiting for visas in Bangkok.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon urged Myanmar’s generals to accept aid and humanitarian workers “without hindrance”, saying the survival of their people was at stake. He said he had so far not been able to contact Myanmar's senior general, Than Shwe, to ask him in person to remove restrictions on aid workers.

“I am still trying to talk with them (the generals) as well as with leaders in neighbouring countries,” Ban told reporters during a visit to the Carter Center in Atlanta.

The Prime Minister of Thailand, who had been asked by Britain and the US to try to persuade the junta to admit foreign aid workers, cancelled a visit planned for this weekend after Myanmar made its opposition clear.

Myanmar has not updated the official toll since Tuesday, when it said nearly 23,000 were dead, with 42,000 missing. Even those numbers, predicted by western aid workers to rise sharply, make Nargis the worst cyclone to hit Asia since 1991. State-run TV said a senior foreign ministry official had told a US diplomat Myanmar would not turn away assistance.

“Myanmar’s stance is that it will accept all aid regardless of the country,” Kyaw Thu, a second minister at the foreign ministry, told US charge d’affaires Shari Villarosa, who has said the death toll could reach 100,000. The US said it had received permission to send in a planeload of relief supplies on Monday, but that a US aid team had not been granted visas.

The WFP said in a statement that it had decided to send in two relief flights as planned tomorrow, “while discussions continue with the government of Myanmar on the distribution of the food that was flown in today, and not released to WFP”.

The impounded WFP shipments contained 38 tonnes of high-energy biscuits, enough to feed 95,000 people. They were meant to be loaded on trucks and sent to the inundated Irrawaddy Delta, site of most of the destruction.

Planes loaded with food and equipment from several Asian countries have also landed in Yangon in the past few days. Survivors have been mostly fending for themselves after winds of up to 190kmph whipped up a massive wall of seawater last Saturday, inundating the low-lying delta.

The saltwater has not only destroyed homes but also ruined freshwater wells, grain stores and rice fields. The survivors are desperate.

“There are no NGOs here. No UN. Only me,” farmer Tei Lin told Reuters near the delta town of Labutta.

The junta broadcast a message today, urging citizens to do their patriotic duty and vote tomorrow for a Constitution drafted by the junta. It made no mention of the cyclone, or even the fact that voting in the affected areas has been postponed.

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