YANGON (AFP) — Aid groups said Wednesday they were still awaiting permission to enter Myanmar, where they reported bodies rotting on the ground and desperate cyclone survivors dying from hunger and disease.
Five days after the storm hit, leaving more than 60,000 people dead or missing in one of the world's worst natural disasters, the full scope of the tragedy was not yet known, with many towns simply washed away.
But aid workers painted a picture of devastation and urgent need, saying millions of people were homeless and without food and water -- while disaster experts waited in limbo, blocked by Myanmar's secretive army rulers.
"One team came across thousands of people killed in one township, with piles of rotting bodies lying on the ground," said Andrew Kirkwood of Save the Children, one of the few foreign aid groups allowed to operate inside Myanmar.
He said staff inside the poor and isolated nation had received reports that survivors of Saturday's cyclone in Pyinkaya, one of the towns in the hard-hit river delta in Myanmar's south, still had not received food or water.
"Assistance hasn't reached them yet and they are dying," said Kirkwood, adding that most of the 41,000 people listed as missing were assumed to have perished along with more than 22,000 the government said had been killed.
"And clearly there are millions of homeless ," he said. "But how many millions, we don't know."
The extent of the suffering wrought by Cyclone Nargis has put pressure on the army, which seized power in 1962 and has largely turned its back on the rest of the world ever since, to allow in foreign disaster teams.
But the regime spurned offers of help after the 2004 Asian tsunami, and international agencies said they had no word when staff -- including experts at delivering food and medicine in disaster zones -- would be let in this time. The UN's disaster relief branch, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said the regime had named Deputy Foreign Minister Maung Myint to oversee visa applications but that none had yet been granted.
"The appointment of someone at ministerial cabinet level on these things, we hope, will start to move things quickly," OCHA spokesman Richard Horsey said.
Some relief supplies have been trickling in. The second transport plane from Thailand in two days landed on Wednesday, and aid groups have been distributing supplies they already had in the country.
But Horsey said it was essential for staff experienced in large-scale disasters -- who know how to prevent food from rotting at ports while awaiting delivery, for example -- to get in immediately.
The United States, which has for years pushed to tighten the sanctions that critics say have worsened the situation for Myanmar's people, said it had ships nearby loaded with supplies.
"Let the United States come to help you," US President George W. Bush said.
But the military is wary of the outside world -- especially the United States, which has taken a hard line on the military regime.
Instead, people were taking to the streets themselves, assisted by Buddhist monks as they chopped away with knives and axes at uprooted trees that have blocked roads, and worked to move chunks of rooftops torn off buildings.
"We were hoping the authorities would come, but they haven't shown up yet," said one woman in Yangon, speaking on condition of anonymity because she feared reprisal from the government.
A state newspaper said the government had turned back a BBC reporter who tried to enter without a journalist visa, and the junta said Tuesday that all aid experts would have to "negotiate" with the government to be allowed in.
It also said that despite the tragedy, it would go ahead in most parts of the country with a constitutional referendum set for this coming weekend.
The opposition party of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been detained by the junta for most of the past two decades, called that decision unacceptable.
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