International aid workers have finally begun entering Myanmar's cyclone-devastated delta area after being blocked for more than three weeks by the country's military junta, officials said Tuesday.
But the U.N. stressed that an estimated 1.5 million people in the Irrwaddy River delta were still in dire need and had not received aid. Official government estimates put the death toll at about 78,000 with an additional 56,000 people missing.
The apparent breakthrough in the flow of aid for victims of Cyclone Nargis came after promises made by Myanmar's ruling generals to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who returned to New York on Sunday after a four-day visit.
"International aid workers are starting to move to the delta," said Richard Horsey, a spokesman in Bangkok for the U.N. humanitarian effort in Myanmar. Helicopters also began shuttling high-energy biscuits and ready-to-eat meals into the hardest hit area Tuesday, he said.
The French aid agency Doctors Without Borders said its teams had entered remote villages around the delta town of Bogalay where people had not eaten for three days.
"Thousands of people have not seen any aid workers and still have not received any assistance," the group said.
Myanmar's leaders are leery of foreign aid workers and international agencies because they fear an influx of outsiders could undermine their control.
The junta is also hesitant to have its people see aid coming directly from countries such as the United States, which it has long treated as a hostile power seeking to invade or colonize.
Already widely condemned for blocking cyclone relief, the junta is likely to face further international outrage after it extended by a year the house detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi has been confined for more than 12 of the past 18 years to her home in Myanmar's largest city, Yangon. Her latest period of arrest began in 2003.
The U.N. World Food Program said it has sent three international staffers into the delta since the weekend and hopes to deploy larger numbers in coming days.
The agency's Paul Risley said Monday was a "record, red-letter day with seven visas applied for and seven issued." Myanmar's government had earlier denied many visa applications by U.N. and private aid agencies.
"We don't want to lose any more time. We don't want to lose any more momentum. We don't want to lose any more confidence. We will not fail the victims of Cyclone Nargis who are waiting for our help," said Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The regional bloc, which includes Myanmar, is acting as the middleman between Myanmar and the international community and will have a long-term presence in Myanmar to troubleshoot.
Risley said two more helicopters on loan from the Australian government were due to reach Myanmar on Wednesday to help the emergency food lift and six others were "arriving in coming days."
But "these food quantities still fall far short as many people still have not been reached," he said.
Maureen Birmingham, a spokeswoman for the U.N. World Health Organization, said a much-feared wave of new deaths from disease has so far not occurred.
"There is not a second wave of death," she said, adding that it was nonetheless too soon to rule out the possibility of disease outbreaks. "There is a high risk," particularly from water-and mosquito-borne illnesses, she said.