Image: Cyclone victim
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A man works on a house damaged by the cyclone in Myanmar. Agencies are trying to deliver aid into Myanmar in order to assist up to 1 million homeless people.
updated 5/13/2008 6:02:05 PM ET 2008-05-13T22:02:05

Many cyclone victims are getting spoiled or poor-quality food from Myanmar's junta instead of the enriched supplies being delivered by foreign governments and charities, victims and aid workers said Tuesday.

A longtime foreign resident of Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon, told The Associated Press in Bangkok by telephone that angry government officials complained to him about the military misappropriating aid.

He said the officials told him that high-energy biscuits rushed in on the World Food Program's first flights were sent to a military warehouse. They were exchanged for what the officials described as "tasteless and low-quality" biscuits produced by the Industry Ministry to be handed out to cyclone victims, he said.

The foreign resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity because identifying himself could jeopardize his safety, said it was not known if the high-quality food was being sold on the black market or consumed by the military.

A government spokesman did not immediately respond to an e-mailed query from the AP seeking a comment. The allegations were impossible to confirm independently because of the junta's restrictions on journalists.

Conflicting reports about food quality
The World Food Program said it had not heard of its supplies disappearing. "We've had no reports whatsoever about any incidents of this kind," Marcus Prior, a WFP spokesman, said in Bangkok.

CARE Australia's country director in Myanmar, Brian Agland, said members of his local staff brought back some of the rotting rice being distributed in the devastated Irrawaddy River delta.

"I have a small sample in my pocket, and it's some of the poorest quality rice we've seen," he said. "It's affected by salt water and it's very old."

It's unclear whether the rice, which he described as dark gray in color and consisting of very small grains, is coming from the government or from mills in the area or warehouses hit by the cyclone.

"Certainly, we are concerned that (poor quality rice) is being distributed," Agland said by telephone from Yangon. "The level of nutrition is very low."

Many survivors also said they were either not getting any aid or were being handed rotten, moldy rice.

Military taking control of aid
The military, which has ruled with an iron fist since 1962, has taken control of most aid sent by other countries, including the United States, which made its first aid delivery Monday and sent in another cargo plane Tuesday with 19,900 pounds of blankets, water and mosquito netting. A third flight was to take in a 24,750-pound load.

U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Douglas Powell said the situation remained fluid, but flights were expected to continue after Tuesday, which appeared to broaden the original agreement for three flights on Monday and Tuesday.

State television said the death toll had gone up by 2,335 to 34,273, and the number of missing stood at 27,838 after many of those listed as missing were accounted for.

The United Nations says the actual death toll could be between 62,000 and 100,000.

State television said the navy commander in chief, Rear Adm. Soe Thein, told Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific forces, that basic needs of the storm victims are being fulfilled and that "skillful humanitarian workers are not necessary."

The U.N. said the World Food Program is getting in only 20 percent of the food needed because of bottlenecks, logistics problems and government-imposed restrictions.

"There is obviously still a lot of frustration that this aid effort hasn't picked up pace" 10 days after the cyclone hit, said Richard Horsey, spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian operation in Bangkok, the capital of neighboring Thailand.

Widespread devastation
Cyclone Nargis devastated the delta on May 2-3, leaving about 62,000 people dead or missing according to the government count. The U.N. has suggested the death toll is likely to be more than 100,000.

With their homes washed away and large tracts of land under water, some 2 million survivors, mostly poor rice farmers, are living in abject misery, facing disease and starvation.

The survivors are packed into Buddhist monasteries or camping in the open, drinking water contaminated by fecal matter, with dead bodies and animal carcasses floating around. Food and medicine are scarce.

Yangon was pounded by heavy rain Monday and more downpours were expected throughout the week, further hindering aid deliveries.

For many, the rainwater was the only source of clean drinking water.

The international Red Cross said its delegation in Myanmar found an urgent need for more medical supplies in the Irrawaddy delta.

"During the cyclone, many people held onto trees to avoid being blown away," Red Cross official Bridget Gardner said. "They were almost 'sand blasted' by dirt and saltwater; (many) lost the top layer of their skin and it's important that these injuries are treated before infections can set in."

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States was pressing the junta and its foreign allies for Myanmar to allow in not only food and supplies but disaster relief experts.

"We are calling on them to allow the international community to help the people of Burma," she told reporters. "We are doing everything we can because this is a humanitarian issue, not a political issue, and we want to make very clear that our only desire is to help the people of Burma."

Most foreigners banned
The government has barred nearly all foreigners experienced in managing such catastrophes from going to the delta west of Yangon and is expelling those who have managed to go in.

Jean-Sebastien Matte, an emergency coordinator with Doctors Without Borders, said his foreign staff have repeatedly been forced to return to Yangon from the delta.

Armed police checkpoints were set up outside Yangon on the roads to the delta, and all foreigners were being sent back by policemen who took down their names and passport numbers.

"No foreigners allowed," a policeman said Tuesday after waving a car back.

In a newspaper interview, Germany's development minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, said China and Russia need to push for U.N. Security Council action to pressure Myanmar to throw open the door to international aid.

The foreign resident who relayed the reports of the military switching its own biscuits for the WFP's aid also said several businessmen had been told to give the government cash donations of no less than $1,800 each to aid cyclone victims.

Companies involved have included jade mining concerns in Hpakant, restaurants and construction companies in Yangon, he said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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