Myanmar seizes U.N. aid supplies, won't let in U.S.

YANGON, Myanmar &

Myanmar's military leaders seized aid shipments headed for cyclone survivors and told the top U.S. diplomat there today that they're not ready to let in American aid workers despite warnings the country is on the verge of a medical catastrophe.

Another 4 inches of rain was forecast to fall next week as more than — million people waited for food, clean water, shelter and medicine to reach them. Diplomats and aid groups warned number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because of illnesses and said thousands of children may have been orphaned.

The U.N. World Food Program said two planeloads of supplies containing enough high-energy biscuits to feed 95,000 people were seized today, prompting the world body to say it was suspending food-aid flights.

Later, WFP chief spokeswoman Nancy Roman said flights would resume on Saturday while negotiations continued for the release of the supplies.

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 — million or more people &

who need this assistance are not part of a political dialogue. They need this humanitarian assistance. Please release it."

Shari Villarosa, the U.S. charge d'affairs in Yangon, said she met with Myanmar Deputy Foreign Minister Kyaw Thu on today to discuss American relief operations.

Myanmar says it will accept aid from all countries, but prohibits the entry of foreign workers who would deliver and manage the operations. The junta is "not ready" to change that position, Villarosa said she was told.

The U.S. has an enormous ability to deliver aid quickly, evident during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.

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.

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.

The U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization said its models forecast three days of strong rain that could dump 4 inches in Myanmar beginning Thursday or Friday.

Heavy rain could worsen the situation in the storm-affected coastal region, the meteorological agency said, though it cautioned that forecasts beyond five days could change.

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 today 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.

Andrew Brookes, an aerospace specialist at the IISS, an independent think tank, said Myanmar has about 15 transport planes but most are small jets not adequate to carry hundreds of tons of supplies. The country has fewer than 40 helicopters and only a fraction may be operational, he said.

"Even if they were all serviceable it's not even a drop in the ocean. The task is so awesome it would phase even a sophisticated force like the British, French or Germans," Brookes said.

It is not clear how much of 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.

Three Red Cross aid flights loaded with shelter kits and other emergency supplies landed in Myanmar today without incident.

"We are not experiencing any problems getting in (unlike) the United Nations," Danish Red Cross spokesman Hans Beck Gregersen 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 today.

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 today.

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.

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