Burma's military regime said Wednesday it wouldn't accept aid for the millions of victims of Cyclone Nargis from U.S. warships, even though American military aircraft have been landing up to five times a day in the storm-battered country, delivering relief supplies.
International aid agencies and foreign governments have been urging the reclusive army generals who run Burma, also known as Myanmar, to accept foreign aid and allow global relief teams into the country ever since the cyclone struck on May 3.
What aid has been allowed in is being delivered solely by Burmese army teams, amid accusations of corruption and favouritism. Very few foreign relief experts have been given visas.
The United Nations estimates that nearly 2.5 million people are destitute after the storm, which left nearly 134,000 dead or missing.
State radio said assistance from U.S. warships "comes with strings attached" that are "not acceptable to the people of Myanmar."
The radio report cited fears that Washington wants to overthrow the Burmese junta, but said airlifted aid from the U.S. was acceptable, without giving an explanation.
Many still cut off
Many of the worst affected areas are still inaccessible by road and aid officials had been hoping that the regime would clear the way for foreign naval vessels to begin landing supplies directly to survivors in the Irrawaddy River Delta.
The junta has been gradually relaxing some of its restrictions on foreign aid, announcing it would allow medical teams from neighbouring southeast Asian countries into the cyclone zone and giving a few visas to some United Nations and other agencies.
UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon is on his way to Burma to press the generals to allow more access for aid and relief experts.
Before leaving New York Tuesday, he said the UN had received the go-ahead to use helicopters to deliver aid to stranded victims.
"We have received government permission to operate nine WFP [World Food Program] helicopters," Ban said, "which will allow us to reach areas that have so far been inaccessible."
The secretary general said aid efforts in Burma had reached a "critical moment."
"We have a functioning relief program in place," he said, "But so far we have been able to reach only 25 per cent of people in need."
Ban to meet junta leader
Ban is due to arrive in the country Thursday after meetings in the Thai capital, Bangkok. Arriving there Wednesday, he confirmed that he'd be meeting the junta's top leader, a meeting that Burmese authorities have yet to confirm.
"After going to the affected areas, I will meet with senior government officials, including Senior General Than Shwe," the UN secretary general told journalists.
Ban's letters and telephone calls to Than Shwe have gone unanswered for days, although the junta did announce its approval of the secretary general visit on Monday.
Meanwhile Burma's state media has announced that the junta will set up orphanages for children whose parents died in the cyclone.
The New Light of Myanmar newspaper said orphanages will be opened in several Irrawaddy Delta towns.
The newspaper did not give details of how many children were affected by the storm. UNICEF's representative in Rangoon, Ramesh Shrestha, said the agency believes the number of children left without adult guardians is more than 600 and could rise.
UNICEF was working with Burmese authorities to help unaccompanied children find any surviving relatives, Shrestha said.
UNICEF has estimated that children may account for more than one-third of those killed in the cyclone and has said that those who survived could be at risk of human trafficking and sexual abuse in chaotic refugee camps.
The crowded and makeshift shelters were built by survivors and have forced orphans and separated children to live alongside strangers, often in dark areas with little supervision. There has been one report of the attempted trafficking of a teenage storm survivor in Rangoon, but so far no confirmed reports of sexual abuse, UNICEF said.
Similar concerns were expressed following the tsunami that battered a large portion of Asia in 2004, but little evidence of such problems emerged.