- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2008

NAYPYITAW, Burma (AP) — Burma’s ruling junta said yesterday it will let foreign aid workers and commercial ships help survivors in the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy River Delta, but refused to relent on accepting aid from U.S., French and British military ships.

The ships, almost within sight of the coast for more than a week, offer a huge potential boost to the aid effort because they can send helicopters to the hardest-to-reach spots.

The military regime told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday that all aid workers would be let into the country as long as it was clear what they were doing and how long they would remain.

The Irrawaddy River Delta, Burma’s key rice-producing region, was decimated by Cyclone Nargis, but the xenophobic junta has kept it virtually off-limits to foreign aid workers.

An estimated 2.5 million people remain in severe need, threatened by disease, hunger and exposure because of the loss of their homes. The U.N. says only about 25 percent of survivors have received any kind of aid.

Official estimates put the death toll at about 78,000, with another 56,000 missing. Burma has estimated the economic damage at $11 billion from the May 2-3 storm.

Under intense international pressure — and with an aid donors meeting scheduled for tomorrow — Senior Gen. Than Shwe said he would allow in aid workers “regardless of nationality,” Mr. Ban said.

Gen. Than Shwe refused to relent on the docking of the military ships, however.

According to Mr. Ban, the Burmese leader “agreed that international aid could be delivered to Myanmar via civilian ships and small boats.” Mr. Ban was using the regime’s name for Burma.

The U.S., Britain and France all have warships off Burma’s coast ready to help. But the junta is nervous about any landings because it fears invasion or political interference. It moved its capital from Rangoon, the largest city, to this town in the north in 2005 partly because of such fears.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said yesterday that 50 U.S. C-130 transport plane flights have been permitted into Burma, carrying more than 480 tons of relief supplies. But they have not been allowed to fly directly to the delta.

The International Red Cross said rivers and ponds in Bogalay remained full of corpses and many people in remote areas had received no aid.

Even getting into Burma was progress for Mr. Ban, who will return for donors meeting tomorrow.

The 76-year-old Gen. Than Shwe — reclusive, superstitious and known as “the bulldog” for his stubbornness — had refused to answer Mr. Ban’s calls from New York or to respond to two letters.

But the junta allowed Mr. Ban to fly to the remote capital of Naypyitaw early yesterday after taking him on a carefully choreographed, four-hour helicopter tour of the disaster zone Thursday.