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U.N. chief sees devastation on Myanmar aid mission

KYONDAH RELIEF CAMP, Myanmar (Reuters) - U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon saw flooded rice fields and destroyed homes during his mission on Thursday to bring large-scale international aid to 2.4 million people left destitute by Cyclone Nargis.

On a helicopter tour of the Irrawaddy Delta and a visit to one of the military government’s relief camps and a distribution centre, Myanmar officials told the U.N. secretary-general the situation was under control.

But Ban said his main concern was to get his message across that the generals needed to open up to more foreign aid and expertise, which has been limited since the May 2 storm and sea surge left nearly 134,000 dead or missing.

“I am so sorry, but don’t lose your hope,” Ban told one woman as he peered into a blue tent at the Kyondah relief camp 75 km (46 miles) south of Yangon. “The United Nations is here to help you. The whole world is trying to help Myanmar.”

Only a quarter of those in need have been reached after one of Asia’s worst cyclones in decades destroyed entire villages. Relief experts fear more will die of disease and injuries if they do not receive a steady supply of food, medical care and equipment in the coming months.

For the trip by Myanmar military helicopter, Ban changed from a business suit into a beige casual jacket, baseball cap and slacks. His three-hour tour included flying over flooded rice fields, many covered with brown sludge, to get to the camp.

He saw extensive damage to trees, homes and other structures.

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Energy Minister Brigadier General Lun Thi briefed Ban at the camp, the same one diplomats were shown at the weekend.

“All efforts are being made towards the relief of the victims and for the country to soon return to normal,” Lun Thi said at the camp, where 100 new blue tents were neatly lined up in rows, inhabited mostly by women and small children.

State-run TV showed footage of the official tour, Ban shaking hands and talking to survivors.

Prime Minister Thein Sein was quoted as saying in Yangon that “politics should not be intertwined with humanitarian needs” and that the government was not impeding the flow of aid.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said there were no strings attached to international aid.

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“This is a humanitarian response being made to a natural disaster that is being turned into a man-made catastrophe. We are trying to send aid there for purely humanitarian purposes. There is no ulterior motive,” Miliband said on a trip with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to California.

Rice said: “One has to worry about the proper distribution of the aid, about the ability to get that aid to people who need it. We have been working our way through these things in a frustratingly slow pace.”

The United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is one of 10 members, are preparing for a donor-pledging conference in Yangon on Sunday.

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ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters in the Thai capital, Bangkok, that countries would be reluctant to commit money until they are allowed to assess the damage for themselves.

“The shared concern is we don’t know the extent of the damage. We don’t know the number of the dead, the number of the missing or the number of the displaced,” said Surin, who was told by officials that Myanmar needed $11 billion (5.56 billion pounds) in pledges.

Ban was to meet Senior General Than Shwe on Friday in Naypyidaw, a new capital 390 km (250 miles) north of Yangon, where the junta lives in isolation from the rest of the country.

Ban’s visit was the talk of Yangon for people desperate for political change after 46 years of harsh military rule. But deep down they accepted that the visit would not stray from its humanitarian mission.

“I don’t think we can expect much out of his visit because the U.N. has not been able to influence the regime at all concerning our situation,” lawyer Nyunt Aung said.

The generals’ normal distrust of outsiders is even greater after worldwide outrage and heightened sanctions imposed after the army’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in September.

Sunday’s conference coincides with the expiry of the latest year-long detention order on opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. But nobody expects her to be released from five years of house arrest.

European Union lawmakers kept up pressure on Myanmar’s military by voting overwhelmingly on Thursday in favour of a resolution urging the U.N. Security Council to consider whether forced aid shipments were possible.

The government has allowed planes from several countries, including the United States, its fiercest critic, to land with emergency supplies, but not more western disaster experts.

Medical teams from India, China, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh were working in the Irrawaddy Delta along with thousands of local medical and other volunteers, state-run TV reported.

(Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun in Yangon, Nopporn Wong-Anan and Ed Cropley in Bangkok, Sue Pleming in California; writing by Grant McCool; editing by Bill Tarrant and Mohammad Zargham)

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