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U.N. Chief Says Myanmar to Allow in Aid Workers

Ban, who is visiting Myanmar in an effort to get the country’s reclusive military leaders to allow international disaster assistance, held a crucial two-hour meeting Friday with the junta leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the nation’s most powerful figure.

“I had a very good meeting with Senior General Than Shwe and particularly on the aid workers. He has agreed to allow all the aid workers, regardless of nationality” into the country, Ban said, according to the Associated Press.

Myanmar’s junta has until now refused to allow a large number of foreign aid workers and experts to operate within the cyclone-ravaged areas. In the three weeks since Cyclone Nargis tore into the country, Myanmar has reportd that at least 78,000 people were killed and another 56,000 remain missing. For the hundreds of thousands of survivors, aid has been slow to arrive.

While granting an increasing number of visas to foreign workers, the regime has barred all but a handful of them from the hardest-hit region, the Irrawaddy delta.

Ban did not say, however, whether Than Shwe had agreed to urgent requests by international aid agencies for better access to the delta. France-based Doctors Without Borders said it now had some foreign staffers working in four areas of the devastated delta region, which had previously been virtually off limits to non-Myanmar relief workers.

When asked if he thought the agreement was a breakthrough, Ban told reporters: “I think so.” One foreign aid official echoed the sentiment, calling it a “significant step forward.”

Than Shwe also agreed to make Yangon the logistics hub of the aid operation, which Ban called “an important development,” according to the AP.

“Translating what you hear in a place like that into reality — we will have to wait and see what will happen,” Lionel Rosenblatt, president emeritus of the humanitarian agency Refugees International, told the New York Times.

Some 2.5 million survivors are believed at risk from disease, starvation and exposure to monsoon rains.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned Friday that hundreds of thousands of people in remote areas of the delta have insufficient food, and said prices for rice, cooking oil and other basics had doubled throughout the country.

The 76-year-old Than Shwe — a reclusive military leader known as the “old man” or “the bulldog” for his stubbornness — had refused to answer Ban’s calls from New York or answer two letters sent to him by the secretary-general, the AP reported.

On Thursday, Ban viewed flooded rice fields and destroyed villages and visited a government-run relief camp in the Irrawaddy delta.

“I’m very upset by what I’ve seen,” Ban told reporters after a walk through a makeshift relief camp.

Despite the uncertainties, relief agencies expressed optimism that more of their workers would be able to access the country after Ban’s mission to Myanmar.

“This is a significant step forward, and could be a turning point in the aid response,” Brian Agland, who heads the U.S.-based aid group CARE in Myanmar, told the AP. “We welcome the agreement that has been reached between the U.N. secretary-general and government authorities in Myanmar that will facilitate the immediate entry of emergency response experts.”

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