The United Nations is suspending aid shipments to Burma, where authorities have begun seizing supplies intended for some 1.5 million cyclone survivors, a UN spokesman said Friday.
All food aid and other supplies delivered by the UN World Food Program, whose four planes touched down in Burma for the first time Thursday, have been confiscated by the ruling military junta, said Paul Risley.
More than 34 tonnes of high-energy biscuits were among the supplies.
Risley said he didn't know why the supplies had been seized, but the move has left the WFP with "no choice" but to suspend its aid shipments.
A relief plane from Qatar was able to drop off supplies in the southeast Asian country Friday, but humanitarian workers and journalists on board were turned away. A U.S. offer to help the cyclone-ravaged country was rejected Thursday.
Burmese officials expressed gratitude for the planes loaded with supplies that have landed in the country, but urged agencies to send materials rather than personnel.
Earlier Friday, Risley called the refusal by Burma's isolationist junta to give visas to relief workers looking to help victims in the cyclone-ravaged country "unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts."
He said the organization has submitted 10 visa applications around the world, including six in Bangkok, but none have been granted.
Humanitarian agencies fear delays in issuing visas to relief workers could push the death toll from last Saturday's cyclone above 100,000 as victims run out of safe drinking water and food.
"The military government has said that they don't need any expertise on the ground, they are adamant about this, so now it's really a stalemate here and people are really wondering how desperate [things] are going to get," the CBC's Michel Cormier reported from Bangkok on Friday.
U.S., France consider unilateral action
Both American and French officials have raised the idea of dropping aid into Burma unilaterally, without permission from the ruling military junta. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of the aid group Doctors Without Borders, said this week that unauthorized air drops could be permitted under the UN's "responsibility to protect" mandate, which applies to civilians.
Such an approach, however, raises both political and practical problems, especially regarding how the aid would then be distributed among survivors.
"How would you in practice deliver supplies to individuals and families if the authorities of the country don't want that to happen? I think that raises many, many issues," said Richard Horsey, a Bangkok-based spokesman for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Aid.
He said the UN and its partners have been able to reach 276,000 of the more than 1.5 million people affected by Cyclone Nargis as of two days ago, and more have been assisted since then. While foreign aid workers have not been banned outright, he said, key UN personnel are still waiting for the green light to enter the country.
"It's more than just getting resources to Rangoon, it's more than just getting supplies there. We need to have the structures in place to run an efficient operation and the logistical capacity in terms of boats, and helicopters and so on to get it quickly out to the people who need it," Horsey said.
Reports have appeared of entire villages submerged, bodies floating in salty water and children searching for their families. A number of countries, including Canada, have urged the Burmese to allow relief workers in.
Late Thursday, Burma rejected an offer from the U.S. to send transport planes packed with supplies into the country. The planes were waiting in neighbouring Thailand for permission to enter.
"We are in a long line of nations who are ready, willing and able to help, but also, of course, in a long line of nations the Burmese don't trust," U.S. Ambassador Eric John told reporters in Bangkok on Thursday.
In a statement early Friday, the Foreign Ministry officials said one relief flight was sent back after landing in Rangoon because the search-and-rescue team and media on board had not received permission to enter the country.
State-owned TV showed a cargo plane from Italy with water containers, food and plastic sheets arriving at Rangoon's international airport.
Burmese officials did issue a plea for international help earlier in the week, but the reclusive junta has been accused of dragging its feet.