Monday, 19 May 2008

Burma's children at risk of starving to death

* Aid agencies warn children are starving
* As many as 2 million in need of food and water
* UN says more international aid needs to be allowed in

THOUSANDS of children in Burma could starve within days unless food is rushed to them, aid agencies have warned.

The international community has been turning up the pressure on the regime over its handling of the tragedy, which has left nearly 134,000 people dead or missing and 2 million in need of food and water since tearing into the southern Irrawaddy Delta on May 2.

British aid group Save the Children said thousands of children could starve to death within weeks, and the latest UN internal report said it was still awaiting government approval to import rice, edible seeds and oil.

"We are extremely worried that many children in the affected areas are now suffering from severe acute malnourishment, the most serious level of hunger," said Jasmine Whitbread, who heads the agency's operation in Britain.

"When people reach this stage, they can die in a matter of days."

The World Food Program (WFP), which is leading the outside emergency food effort, said it had managed to get rice and beans to 212,000 of the 750,000 people it thinks are most in need, the Associated Press reported.

"It's not enough. There are a very large number of people who are yet to receive any kind of assistance and that's what's keeping out teams working round the clock," WFP spokesman Marcus Prior said in Bangkok.

UN's top disaster official John Holmes arrived in Myanmar yesterday on a three-day visit to convince the reluctant regime to open the doors to a massive relief effort after Cyclone Nargis.

Mr Holmes was carrying a letter from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to the head of the junta, Than Shwe. The UN chief has made repeated calls to the military leader but failed to reach him since the tragedy.

The secretive military rulers have been letting more foreign experts into the country in recent days, but aid groups say it is not enough to ensure that victims get the food, water, shelter and medical care they need

South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner have both raised the spectre of crimes against humanity by the junta over its handling of the catastrophe.

Archbishop Tutu said the regime had "effectively declared war on its own population".

Despite the Brumese government's insistence that the relief effort is going well, witnesses who managed to sneak through the security cordon around the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta said the situation remained dire.

'It was horrible beyond description," a foreign businessman said.

"Most of the devastated huts looked like they were empty at first glance. But there were actually survivors inside," he said.

'One hut with no roof was full of about 100 people, crouching in the rain. There was no food and no water. Each person had nothing more than the clothes on their bodies, shivering in the cold."

The junta has continued to insist it can handle most of the operation by itself, and state media are full of photos of smiling citizens receiving handouts from generals.

- with AFP-Newscom

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