updated 5/24/2008 3:38:57 AM ET 2008-05-24T07:38:57

International aid agencies Saturday cautiously welcomed the Myanmar junta’s pledge to open its doors to foreign help and urged the regime not to waste more time after three weeks of blocking relief for cyclone survivors.

Myanmar’s ruling generals told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Friday that “all aid workers” would be allowed into the cyclone-ravaged country and to allow civilian ships and small boats to deliver aid. The concession came on the eve of an international donors conference Sunday in Myanmar.

The apparent breakthrough distracted attention from the junta’s decision to push ahead Saturday with a constitutional referendum in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, and hard-hit delta areas.

Critics say the proposed charter is designed to strengthen the military’s grip on power and have urged the government to focus on relief efforts.

The rest of the country voted May 10, and state radio has said the delayed balloting Saturday could not reverse the constitution’s reported approval by 92.4 percent of the 22 million eligible voters.

Detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi cast her ballot on Friday evening when referendum officials visited her Yangon home with a ballot card, an official said on condition of anonymity. Suu Kyi’s opposition party called for a “No” vote on the proposed charter, which effectively bars her from holding elected office.

The Irrawaddy Delta, Myanmar’s key rice-producing region, was decimated by the May 2-3 Cyclone Nargis. But the xenophobic junta has kept it virtually off-limits to foreign aid workers.

'Race against time'
The push to get aid workers into the area is increasingly urgent because an estimated 2.5 million people remain in severe need, threatened by disease, hunger and exposure because of the loss of their homes.

“It is a race against time to get aid to the people who desperately need it,” the British aid group Oxfam said in a statement, adding it “cautiously welcomed” the junta’s new willingness to accept foreign experts, but was waiting to see “genuine efforts to relieve the suffering on the ground.”

Save the Children voiced similar concerns.

“We’re hopeful that it means more foreign aid workers will go to the worst affected areas,” said spokeswoman Kate Conradt. “We already have a number of expatriate staff in Yangon. They just can’t leave the city.”

Official estimates put the death toll at about 78,000, with another 56,000 missing. Myanmar has estimated the economic damage at about $11 billion.

Under intense international pressure — and with an aid donors meeting scheduled for Sunday — Senior Gen. Than Shwe said he would allow aid workers into the affected area “regardless of nationality,” Ban said.

No military ships
Than Shwe refused to relent on the landing of military ships, however. According to Ban, Than Shwe “agreed that international aid could be delivered to Myanmar via civilian ships and small boats.”

The U.S., Britain and France all have warships off Myanmar’s coast ready to help, but they have not been given approval to go ashore or send helicopters to bring aid to the most remote and desperate areas. Myanmar’s junta is nervous about any shore landings because it fears an invasion or political interference.

Though his work for Myanmar is still far from completed, Ban flew to Chengdu in China on Saturday to inspect the damage done by the May 12 earthquake there. While touring earthquake-hit areas with Ban, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pledged $10 million in aid for Myanmar aid at an international donor conference scheduled for Sunday.

Ban was scheduled to fly to Bangkok, Thailand later Saturday to join Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej in opening a staging center for cyclone relief supplies at the city’s Don Muang airport.

The U.N. chief returns to Yangon on Sunday to co-chair the donors conference, which will be attended by officials from more than 45 countries and regional organizations, U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said Friday in New York.

The conference is being sponsored by the U.N. and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is taking the lead in organizing the delivery of aid.

The United Nations launched an emergency appeal for $187 million on May 9 and then raised the amount to $201 million. That figure will likely increase further once disaster relief experts are able to survey the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta.

Ban said Friday the details of moving aid workers into the delta still needed to be worked out. But he said believed he had achieved a breakthrough. “I believe they will keep and honor their commitment,” Ban said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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