As the authorities in Myanmar raised the cyclone death toll to nearly 32,000 and admitted one U.S. military aircraft, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pressed the junta to let international assistance and aid workers into the country without hindrance and expressed “deep concern and immense frustration” with what he called “the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis.”
In unusually blunt language for a U.N. leader, he said, “This is not about politics; it is about saving people’s lives. There is absolutely no more time to lose.”
The sharp comments from Ban came on a day when the authorities in Myanmar allowed a U.S. military aircraft to land with relief supplies Monday, crossing one barrier that has hindered the delivery of large-scale aid to more than a million victims of the May 3 cyclone. Meantime, state television has put the death toll at 31,938, with 29,770 people missing.
The U.S. flight was the most public example of what aid groups said was a slight easing of restrictions over the last day, although not nearly enough to provide for what they said was a desperate — and increasing — need. One raised its estimate to between 62,000 and 100,000 dead.
And even with the U.S. flight — the first of three that the Myanmar government has approved — President Bush said that the slow flow of aid suggested that the generals in charge were either “isolated or callous.”
“It’s been days and no telling how many people have lost their lives as a result of the slow response,” he told CBS News in a radio interview. “An American plane finally went in, but the response isn’t good enough.”
In frustration, Ban said that he had been trying for four days without success to reach the country’s senior general, Than Swe, and had sent a second letter to him Monday alerting him to the United Nations’ efforts to provide help and its need for “greater access and freedom of movement.”
John Holmes, the undersecretary-general in charge of emergency aid, said that while there had been “slight progress” in granting visas to relief workers, only 34 of more than 100 applications had been approved.
U.N. officials said that the distribution of most deliveries of international relief supplies were still being blocked to the most badly affected parts of the country. They said help was reaching fewer than one-third of those in need.
The U.N. World Food Program, while reporting better cooperation with the government, said that it needed to move 375 tons of food a day to keep up with the urgent needs, but was shipping less than 20 percent of that — and was close to running out of rice.
At the airport in Yangon, a group of high-level officials greeted the unarmed C-130 transport plane carrying in the first U.S. aid, in an extraordinary scene of cooperation between two nations whose only relations in recent years have been acrimonious.
In a sign of the significance of the U.S. aid delivery, the aircraft also carried Adm. Timothy J. Keating, the commander of the U.S. military in the Pacific.