YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar’s junta seized U.N. aid shipments headed for hungry and homeless survivors of last week’s devastating cyclone, prompting the world body to suspend further help on Friday.
The U.N. said the aid included 38 tons of high-energy biscuits and arrived in Myanmar on Friday on two flights from Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates.
“All of the food aid and equipment that we managed to get in has been confiscated,” U.N. World Food Program spokesman Paul Risley said. “For the time being, we have no choice but to end further efforts to bring critical needed food aid into Myanmar at this time.”
Myanmar’s government acknowledged taking control of the shipments and said it plans to distribute the aid itself to the affected areas.
In a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press, government spokesman Ye Htut said the junta had clearly stated what it would do and denied the action amounted to a seizure.
“I would like to know which person or organization (made these) these baseless accusations,” he said.
The WFP’s regional director, Tony Banbury, directly appealed to Myanmar’s military leaders in an interview with Associated Press Television News.
“Please, this food is going to people who need it very much. You and I, we have the same interests,” Banbury said. “Those victims — those 1 million or more people — who need this assistance are not part of a political dialogue. They need this humanitarian assistance. Please release it.”
More than 60,000 people are dead or missing and entire villages are submerged in the Irrawaddy delta after Saturday’s cyclone. Many of the survivors waiting for food, clean water and medicine were crammed into Buddhist monasteries or camped outdoors.
Aid groups warned the area is on the verge of a medical disaster and that thousands of children may have been orphaned. The U.N. estimates 1.5 million people have been severely affected and has voiced concern about the disposal of dead bodies.
“Many are not buried and lie in the water. They have started rotting and the stench is beyond words,” Anders Ladekarl, head of the Danish Red Cross.
About 20,000 body bags were being sent so volunteers from the Myanmar chapter of the Red Cross can start collecting bodies, he said.
In the village of Kongyangon, someone had written in Burmese, “We are all in trouble. Please come help us” on black asphalt, a video from the Norway-based opposition news network, the Democratic Voice of Burma, showed. A few feet away was another plea: “We’re hungry.”
In Yangon, the price of increasingly scarce water has shot up by more than 500 percent, and rice and oil jumped by 60 percent over the last three days, the Danish Red Cross said.
The U.N. has grown increasingly critical of Myanmar’s refusal to let in foreign aid workers who could assess the extent of the disaster with the junta apparently overwhelmed. None of the 10 visa applications submitted by the WFP has been approved.
“The frustration caused by what appears to be a paperwork delay is unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts,” Risley said. “It’s astonishing.”
The junta said in a statement Friday it was grateful to the international community for its assistance — which has included 11 chartered planes loaded with aid supplies — but the best way to help was just to send in material rather than personnel.
Three Red Cross aid flights loaded with shelter kits and other emergency supplies landed in Myanmar Friday without incident.
“We are not experiencing any problems getting in (unlike) the United Nations,” Danish Red Cross spokesman Hans Beck Gregersen said.
It is not clear how much of the aid has been delivered to the victims in the Irrawaddy delta.
“Believe me, the government will not allow outsiders to go into the devastated area,” said Yangon food shop owner Joseph Kyaw.
“The government only cares about its own stability. They don’t care about the plight of the people,” he said.
One relief flight was sent back after landing in Yangon on Thursday because it carried a search-and-rescue team and media representatives who had not received permission to enter the country, the junta said. It did not give details, but said the plane had flown in from Qatar.
According to state media, 23,335 people died and 37,019 are missing from Cyclone Nargis. Shari Villarosa, who heads the United States Embassy in Yangon, said the number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because of illnesses.
Grim assessments were made about what lies ahead. The aid group Action Against Hunger noted that the delta region is known as the country’s granary, and the cyclone hit before the harvest.
“If the harvest has been destroyed this will have a devastating impact on food security in Myanmar,” the group said.
The U.N. was putting together an urgent appeal to fund aid efforts over the next six months. Spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told reporters that the exact amount of the appeal would be specified later Friday.
The International Organization for Migration says it is asking for $8 million as part of the appeal. The U.N. refugee agency says it needs $6 million to fund the immediate shelter and household needs of 250,000 people.
France was sending a navy ship loaded with 1,500 tons of humanitarian aid to Myanmar, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office said Friday.
Private donations also were flowing to aid organizations, including a luxury river cruise liner donated by a British travel company to transport relief and 25,000 shoes sent by a U.S.-based group.
But Myanmar has snubbed a U.S. offer to help, refusing to take advantage of Washington’s enormous ability to deliver aid quickly, which was evident during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.